The nations of Europa are struggling with threats from within and without. Vast ice sheets cover the north of the world and everyday survival can be a challenge. Technology is advancing, with the invention of airships and firearms, but the Mage Houses despise these developments and actively fight them. A would-be emperor, Camjiata, has been defeated but political turmoil has been left in his wake.
Cat Barahal, a young orphan growing up in the city of Adurnam with her aunt, uncle and cousin, is about to reach her majority when she discovers that a pact was made when she was younger. This pact means she must marry one of the feared Cold Mages. As she reluctantly goes along with this arrangement, she discovers secrets about her past, her family and her culture, and what this means for the future of Europa as a whole.
Kate Elliott has consistently been one of the most interesting fantasy authors working over the last twenty years. Her seven-volume Crown of Stars series, set in an alternate history version of Europe, was fascinating, well-characterised and offered fascinating commentary on religion and society. The Crossroads trilogy was much more complex and original, whilst also being tighter, and featured similar musings on both the individual and the larger scale of cultures and ideologies clashing across a continent, not to mention featuring one hell of a twist ending. Cold Magic is the opening volume of the Spiritwalker Trilogy and does some similar things but also brings some new ideas to the table.
The setting is vivid and fascinating, a steampunk/icepunk Europe where the sea levels never rose after the last Ice Age (because the Ice Age is still going on). Much of this book actually takes place in lands that were destroyed by floods tens of thousands of years ago, forming the English Channel. There is lots of detail on how people survive in a land where even the hottest summer days can still be chilly, most of it done organically. There's also a rich, unusual but convincing cultural backdrop, particularly the idea that the Mali Empire (one of the wealthiest in history before European colonisation) has been overrun by a plague, sending its incredibly wealthy upper classes to become refugees in Europa where they join forces with the Celts. But if Elliott is one of the best worldbuilders working in epic fantasy, she is also one of the best handlers of character. Cat, our central character, is a strong and confident woman but whose outer confidence and mastery of etiquette hides inner doubts, especially given her lack of knowledge about her parents and real family backstory. A major subplot of the novel is Cat piecing together her history from documents and accounts of the fate that befell her parents, rolling the story back even as it moves forward. Andevai, the Cold Mage that Cat is forced to marry, is painted in similar depths. Initially he appears unrelatable, remote, arrogant and selfish, but considerably more interesting nuances about him emerge as the story unfolds.
Cold Magic's greatest success is how it handles a striking tonal shift. The opening chapters are fairly grounded. Magic exists, but it is not prevalent and the world is dominated more by industry and the move to a steampunk(ish) existence. Then, about a third of the way into the book, Elliott hits the "Let's weird this stuff up" button and we have an explosion of otherworldly creatures, dalliances into the spirit world, animal spirits taking human form, dinosaur lawyers and prophetic dreams. Elliott foreshadows this quite nicely in the opening chapters so the shift is not jarring. There's also moments when the characters become aware of the existence of other worlds (possibly other timelines) and the world seems to teeter on the brink of fragility, recalling (if briefly) the malleable realities of Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History.
Cold Magic (****) is an imaginative, well-written and different kind of epic fantasy. There are some complaints possible about pacing (not a colossal amount happens in its 500 pages) but the slower pace actually allows the reader to take in the vividly-drawn setting and atmosphere more completely. Those looking for a pedal-to-the-metal action novel may want to look elsewhere, but for those who like imagination and immersion in their fantasy, Cold Magic is a very good read. The book is available now in the UK and USA.