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Fantasy Review: ‘Cold Fire’ by Kate Elliott

Another infuriating entry in the Spiritwalker Trilogy.  How can a book do some things so damn good, and make a complete mess out of others?  I was going to finish off the book, then be done with the series despite already having the concluding volume in my hands.  Then in the last hundred pages this meandering tale suddenly got a cohesive plot and found its purpose, ensuring that I will give the final book a try.

Cat may be one of my favorite first person narrators in the genre, which is an amazing upgrade of the first book in which didn’t care for her much at all.  She is completely, utterly, one hundred percent captivating.  She is smart.  Her tongue is razor sharp.  She both infuriates and captivates those around her.  She fights her own fights when needed, gives ground when it is prudent, and relies on her allies when it is possible.  Hilarious when drunk or trying to one up love interest Vai, her voice single handedly kept me reading through some really rough early chapters.  Even the romance angles that were fairly unbelievable in the first outing felt more organic this time around.

My favorite part of ‘Cold Magic’ was the world Elliott was building and it is expanded on nicely in this outing.  I am a sucker for alternative history and too often it leaves me wanting.  Not so the world of this trilogy; Europa is in a long Ice Age, Rome never fell, the Americas are something completely different.  No traps of well-known figures from history being forced into awkward situations.  Even without the magic it makes for something unique.

But I will be damned if I know what was going on for fully half of this book.   And while some questions were answered by the end of the book, I am not sure the path it took to get there was completely worth it.  A leap of faith led to a cross continental jump.  Cat learns a bit about her parentage and I am just as confused as ever as to its importance.  A whole lot of talk about “the Great Hunt;” which had so much build up for something so…isolated?  Hardly a worldwide event the whole magical community should know about.

Strong conclusion though, finally tying up loose ends that have been hanging since the first book.  I kinda get cold mages now, and fire mages were a nice (if obvious) addition.  It appears Cat and her cousin Bee (did I mention Bee?  Ya Bee was just as awesome as Cat in this book), it appears that the two of them of a grand adventure in front of them next time around. 

3 stars.  Again.  Just like the first book.  And here is hoping the third outing is as focused and fun as the last third of this book, if so it could elevate the whole series in my mind.

Fantasy Review: ‘Cold Magic’ by Kate Elliott

I really like Kate Elliot.  I raved about her ‘Crossroads’ trilogy.  She is a great world builder (her blog is titled ‘I Make up Worlds’), has always shown interesting characters, and usually her writing quickly draws me in and keeps hold of me.  I have had this series on my to-read list for way to long, but finally I got to it.  To my complete surprise, and eventual disappointment, the book left me a little cold.

In typical Elliot fashion the world building shows a lot of promise.  An alternate history that is a little hard to explain.  Rome kept some power, the Phoenicians built a fairly strong sea-trading empire, Mali was a power before disaster forced a mass exodus into Europe.  There is a mix of steampunk technology along with mage houses acting as focal points of power.  I could probably read an entire faux history book on this alternative world.  A lot of questions are left on the table, even the map doesn’t show where a lot of the lands I wonder about are.  More than anything else, it was this world building that left me hoping for more, and was strong enough for me to know I will continue the series no matter what.
It was a good thing I was so intrigued by the world building, because the story itself did nothing for me.  I have read a lot of ‘first books’ in trilogies, but rarely have I seen one in which so little is resolved.  A great many plot points are brought up, but very few go anywhere.  A Roman infiltrator in the girl’s school, what power does Rome still have?  Why was he at the school?  No hints given.  A book Cat learns is a code book, what is it for?  Who knows?  Certainly not the reader.  Why is everyone so interested in dreams with dragons?  More questions than answers in almost every thread of the plot.  When Cat breaks through to the spirit world I don’t know why, nor what is important about it.  At least twice her mystical, previously unknown brother disappears, both times she broods on what might have been.  I just found myself caring very little.  The magic system gives nothing, I still don’t really know much about the cold mages themselves, and even less about the meager magic Cat wields 

I also wasn’t too fond of Cat as a main character.  The brooding over her brother when his disappears is only the beginning.  She has a strange fascination with Andevai, even when he is basically kidnaps her from home.  She is semi resourceful, but most of her good breaks are luck rather than her own doing.  Ironically villain Andevai worked much better as a character for me, torn between who he is and who he wants to be, loyalty to his house verse loyalty to his family.  His set up is great, initially a cold villain, growing into a more human character.  Cat’s cousin Bee was also very entertaining, knowledgeable in reading people and playing off their expectations of her.  There were other characters, but I have already forgotten most of them as well.

This is a fairly disjointed review, but I have rarely been so conflicted about a book.  I finished it last night and while the world building stands out in my mind still, I feel I would need cliff notes to remember the plot.  I tried twice to write a quick synopsis at the beginning and gave up.

3 stars, because it was just good enough to make me hope the sum of all parts will make the series better than the first book. 

Series Review: ‘Crossroads’ by Kate Elliott

A great epic fantasy that stands out from the pack, Crossroads should be a must read for most.  Set mostly in a world know as the Hundred, Elliott stands out from the pack in creating unique cultures.  The author spend time actually thinking through how different cultures would act and think, including how each would have divisions within it self.  No pseudo-europian cultures here, each one is hand crafted.  They each have differing opinions on matters such as slavery, women’s roles, and even homosexuality.  It makes for a unique read.

Elliot also writes engaging and interesting characters.  If anyone can be called a main character, Mai would be it.  And through the three books we watch her grow.  Always smart, we see her sold into a marriage, grow into the marriage, and eventually turn into one of the strongest personalities in the book.  Her final chapter in book three endeared her to me greatly.  We also see major growth in Joss, a Reeve(judge and Eagle rider, which is not near as corny as a it sounds in this world), from an alcoholic to reluctant leader.  Perhaps even better, we see some characters grown and change their mind, like one slave trader, while others hold on to their prejudices thorough he whole series.  It makes character growth much more believable.

The pacing of the books should be quick enough that people who prefer action stay involved.  A war sits as the back drop of the whole story, and both sides are shown in the war.  Some soldiers are sadistic, some human, and often they fight on the same side.

I only have a few downsides, and they are minor.  There were a couple of botched editing jobs(and for me to notice them, they were bad).  One was a timeline issue in the first book, the other were a couple conversations in the third where who was speaking got garbled.  I also felt that the second book introduced too many characters that got forgotten in the third.  If a person is given a PoV, I would like to know what happened to them(This may be remedied by new books in the same world at a later time).  Along the same vein, a more complex world was introduced, but never really worked with (Wildlings, firelings, and other “races” are talked about, even seen, but never given the space that is needed).

All those are minor squabbles though, as the entire series is excellent.  Go out and read it!   

Book 1: Spirit Gate
Book 2: Shadow Gate
Book 3: Traitor’s Gate

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