Sunday, 17 July 2016

Cold Fire by Kate Elliott

Turmoil is brewing in Europa. The legendary general Camjiata has escaped from prison and is now building up an army-in-exile. Cat and her cousin Bee are still pawns in the plans of the rich and powerful, but Cat's otherworldly sire also has plans for her. For her part, Cat just wants to escape these machinations and forge her own path. Events bring her to the Antilles, the home of the Taino Kingdom and the Europan colony of Expedition. There she meets the powerful fire mages and becomes embroiled in yet more intrigue and magic, as her father prepares to use her to draw a powerful soul into his grasp.

Cold Fire is the middle volume of Kate Elliott's Spiritwalker Trilogy, which picks up shortly after the events of Cold Magic. Like its forebear, this is a well-characterised novel which eschews the normal conventions both of the epic fantasy and steampunk genres (whilst borrowing from both). There are elements in this book of the Victorian comedy-of-manners (and occasional, intriguing echoes of the likes of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) and Celtic mythology, as well as the northern European legend of the Wild Hunt.

Elliott's masterstroke here is moving the story to the Caribbean where a whole swathe of other influences come into play, especially the culture and nature of the Taino people. This gives the book a very different atmosphere, especially the much warmer climate which moves us away from the Ice Age-afflicted Europa of the previous novel.

The clash of cultures, with Expedition and the Taino Kingdom presented as in some respects more egalitarian and liberal in matters of the power of women and sexual freedom but still ruled at the whim of an unelected elite, gives the novel a source of tension and debate. However, these tensions are not explored in depth, as the book devotes a lot of time to Cat and Andevai's relationship. Given that the first novel established the situation - them marrying against their will, initially disliking each other but eventually falling in love - this second book does feel like it retreads a lot of the same ground. For a novel almost six hundred pages in paperback, it also feels like not a lot of ground is covered: the opening chapters are interesting and the grand finale is excellent, but the middle third or so of the novel indulges itself in elements which feel a little too soap-operaish.

In some respects this is a typical middle book-of-a-trilogy syndrome, with the pace faltering as the story switches from an introductory to a concluding mode. But Elliott is a fine enough writer - one of the best in modern fantasy - that she overcomes these issues and delivers a cracking finale in which all of the carefully-set-up elements come into play and sets the scene for the final novel in the series, Cold Steel.

Cold Fire (***½) is an interesting and original epic fantasy novel which does things rather differently from the norm for the genre and is all the stronger for it. However, the pacing feels sluggish at times before returning to form in an excellent ending. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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