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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Journey into the Icy Unknown (a Steampunkish Fantasy Adventure)

Being a young woman has never been quite the walk in the park it might--at first blush--appear to be.
Sure, it looks simple enough when viewed from the outside. Young women giggle and share secrets with their best friends. They sit in front of mirrors, studying their reflections and analyzing every pore. They spend hours in pursuit of the perfect article of clothing or pair of shoes. They daydream about who they want to fall in love with them... and then devise elaborate schemes in the hope of ensuring romantic success.
Young women are a lot more than such fluff and frippery, of course. They think about the world at large, looking beyond their own small corner of it. They rail at social injustices and inequalities, and chafe at being told to blindly accept the status quo. They ponder the great unknown of the future, and think, perhaps, that they could solve all the world’s problems, if given the chance. They have minds of their own, and they look for opportunities in which to use them.
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Author Kate Elliott’s Cold Magic focuses on two such young women--girls on the cusp of legal adulthood and all the thrilling and fearsome responsibility it will bring. In that sense, this is something of a coming-of-age tale. It goes way beyond that, however, because Elliott chose, with great effect, to put her spunky young ladies in the middle of an alternate-history, Steampunk-tinged world.
It’s 1837, and early days of the Industrial Revolution. The Europe inhabited by our characters isn’t the same as the one we know from history books; different results in famous battles have led to changes in the power structures (the Phoenician and Carthaginian Empire co-exists with the Roman one, for instance), and the alteration of geopolitical boundaries has created an interesting co-mingling of diverse cultures (groups from the African continent are allied with the Celts, here). Europe’s various rulers number among them military leaders, monarchs, and cold mages--the latter’s power deriving from their ability to wield magic, and being particularly adept at using cold. (Speaking of cold, this version of Europe is stuck in a long-lasting Ice Age--something which adds another interesting layer.) In this world, the mages are a holdover from old times... and it is the mages who oppose all the modernization taking place, deeming it “radical tinkering”, sure to destroy society (a position leaving them both feared and generally disliked.)   
But back to our young women. We get a good sense of who they are, early on. College students, privileged to be studying all the latest scientific achievements with their male counterparts, each girl is just shy of her twentieth birthday. Orphaned Catherine Hassi Barahal, who has lived with her uncle’s family since she was a small child, is the more grounded and practical one--except, perhaps, for her great obsession with reading in general, and with the journals written by her (deceased) father, famous explorer Daniel Hassi Barahal, in particular. Cousin Beatrice, on the other hand, is Cat’s polar opposite, an artistic girl who craves attention and possesses the uncanny ability for bending everyone to her will.
After a bit of excitement in class one day--trouble involving Bee’s confiscated sketchbook (which contains not only excellent depictions of the newfangled airships they were attending a lecture about, but also a bunch of lovingly-detailed renderings of the young fellow who is the current object of Bee’s affections)--the girls are forced to mount a daring rescue campaign of said sketchbook from the dean’s office. (It’s a cute scene, highlighting the girls’ relationship and showcasing the special talents of each, while further building on the whole Steampunk setting.)
That little escapade is a mere inconvenience, however, compared to what happens next...
A mysterious visitor arrives unannounced at the family home later that same evening... a man, inexplicably claiming his right to collect on an old contract agreed upon more than a decade earlier by his family and the Barahals. The arrangement, apparently, stipulates that he will marry the eldest Barahal daughter prior to her twentieth birthday! 
Being a scant two months older than her cousin, means that Cat is the unwitting bride-to-be. And, as both girls watch in shock and disbelief, Cat’s uncle and aunt not only begrudgingly acknowledge these extraordinary terms--without explaining how or why such an agreement was ever made--but insist that Cat leave at once with the man.
It gets worse. This isn’t just any random stranger staking a bizarre claim; he is a cold mage. The Barahals--city dwellers enjoying the Industrial Revolution, thrilled by the likes of the airship newly landed in town, and by inventions such as the gas lights (which they’re unfortunately too poor to afford)--are naturally opposed to the cold mages with their adherence to mystical ways. The mages, in turn, abhor not only all the new technology and fancy gizmos, but also the fact that the combined work of historians, scientists, and political speakers is spawning such widespread upheaval. By marrying a mage, Cat will be tying herself to someone who disagrees with everything she’s grown up thinking and believing. (Not exactly an auspicious start for a marriage.)
But, after the briefest of “ceremonies”, married they are, and Cat finds herself in a claustrophobic carriage with her taciturn new spouse, Andevai, riding in near silence for days on end, en route to a mysterious destination. (“Mysterious”, because he refuses to tell her where they’re going, or why.)
It’s a bitterly-cold and miserable journey across the barren, icy landscape, punctuated by their encounters with terrifying things and strange people. Technology may indeed be taking off like wildfire, but that doesn’t change the fact that (seemingly) ordinary people such as Cat still share the world with not only the mystical mages, but also with trolls, erus, djeli, and gnomes (to name just a few). Just when she thinks she's getting a handle on things, it all shifts and changes yet again, this time putting the couple on the run in a desperate attempt for survival. 
Cat handles herself surprisingly well, throughout. Then again, she's the daughter of an explorer and a descended-from-the-Amazons warrior, and despite having lost her parents so long ago, she still thinks about them often, drawing courage from their exploits. And, courage is precisely what she’s going to need to possess in spades, because danger lurks everywhere, and nothing is as it seems... not her new husband, not the family she thought she knew, and not even who she grew up thinking that she was.
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There is, as you may have guessed, a lot of world-building going on in Cold Magic. The true importance of many things isn’t immediately obvious, but invariably makes sense later, as Cat discovers and learns more. (In that sense, the story also draws from mystery books, because we never know more than Cat knows, only finding out when she does.) It’s a fascinating, richly-layered and textured world that Elliott builds for us, with new takes on some familiar things, as well as others that I hadn’t previously encountered. (There are a few things which aren’t, perhaps, fully-explained within the context of this story, but they’re things which I suspect will come back in future books, and they don’t give me any cause for upset.)  
Cat--and to a slightly-lesser extent, Bee, who’s absent from the action through the mid-section of the book--is a fully-fleshed-out character, sympathetic and believable. (I suspect that some readers might get a bit frustrated with her occasionally, thinking she should know/realize more than she does, sooner than she does, but I found her actions and thought processes true to her age and experience.) She isn’t drawn as someone who becomes impossibly capable or suddenly knowledgable when thrust into some very unexpected situations (an annoying tendency in many fantasy and paranormal books), nor does she come across as a whiny, helpless child. Instead, she deals with a lot of uncertainty and inner turmoil, making decisions--for better or worse--both instinctively and reflectively. Both young women undertake journeys of growth and understanding, and their responses to the situations they find themselves in feel “true”... making their story one you want to totally immerse yourself in.
Really, though, I think that all of the characters are nicely fleshed-out; even very minor ones are given enough detail and depth to make them interesting, and integral, parts of the overall story. The social and cultural dynamics are especially compelling, too; Elliott has created a radically, racially- and culturally-diverse world (particularly notable for the time period), and the idea of such holds great appeal for me.
Cold Magic is the first in Elliott's "Spiritwalker" trilogy, so it definitely has its work cut out for it, establishing the alternate world and histories, plus introducing us to such a broad cast of characters. Elliott calls the series a mash-up, an “Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troödons” (a type of dinosaur)... a description that works well enough for me (although I would add that there is also an element of romance to it--certainly with the whole sinister-but-sexy-stranger-coming-to-steal-away-the-innocent-young-lady plot--but it's by no means the main or only focus).

Overall, I think the author succeeded brilliantly, and Cold Magic stands alone as a complete piece, that also sets up the continuing story for the next book. 
Elliott is a new-to-me author (this book being a friend recommendation, actually), and I’m not only eagerly anticipating the release of the second book in the trilogy (Cold Fire, debuting September 2011), but am looking forward to checking out Elliott’s earlier works. This is good stuff, and I’m hooked. :)

GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4 out of 5 mousies!