Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"Cold Magic," by Kate Elliott

The Protagonist: Cat Hassi Barahal. An orphan raised in the household of her aunt, uncle and cousin Bee, she just wants to blend in and avoid getting involved in radical politics between the lower class and the princes and mages.
Her Angst: Her life plan is shot to hell when her "beloved" aunt and uncle bind her in marriage to a Mage House to spare their own daughter - who, in turns out, has magical powers the Mage Houses are perfectly willing to kill for.

The Secondary Cast:

Bee Hassi Barahal: Cat's crazy-annoying cousin who acts like a chihuahua who was force-fed espresso beans. Also has possibly world-saving magical powers. Sucks to be the world!

Andevai Diarrisso Haranwy: The powerful but young cold mage tasked with marrying the eldest Hassi Barahal daughter in order to secure her powers for his Mage House. Too bad he marries the wrong girl instead!

Chartji: An American troll solicitor. For reals.

Roderic: Cat's Surprise!Brother! Revealing any more would spoil it.

Angst Checklist:

  • My Cousin is Ferociously Irritating But Everyone Seems to Like Her for Some Reason
  • Self-Identity
  • Independence
  • Human Rights
  • The Industrial Age
  • My Relatives Sold Me Into Marriage
Fantasy Checklist:
  • 2 Surprise! Magical Powers
  • 1 Surprise! Sibling
  • 1 Poor Farmer's Son With Surprising Magical Strength
  • 1 Destroyed Airship
  • Two Trolls
  • 1 Dimension into the Spirit World
  • 1 Pack of Magical Cats

The Word: Cat Hassi Barahal is the orphan niece of an illustrious family that's fallen on hard times. For the first few chapters, she attends university with her bouncy, perfectly beautiful and monstrously annoying cousin Bee. The world she lives in is divided by unrest - the continent of Europa is split into hundreds of puzzle pieces ruled over by spoiled princes and powerful Mage Houses, who are in turn threatened by the advent of the Industrial Age and the radical democratic notions of the increasingly rebellious populace.

Cat's personal world, however, is thrown into turmoil when a young mage from the powerful Four Moons House abruptly arrives and demands Cat's aunt and uncle honour a contract they made years ago promising the eldest Hassi Barahal daughter in marriage. Cat, being two months older than Bee, is promptly handed over to a total stranger in marriage and is told to make the best of it. Her new mage husband Andevai is, of course, arrogant, vain, pig-headed, and Inexplicably Handsome in the way of all Obvious Love Interests.

Too late, Cat realizes her aunt and uncle tricked the Four Moons House into accepting her in place of their own daughter, who has an innate magical talent the head Mage wants. Cat is then forced to flee when she overhears the head Mage ordering her new husband to kill her, in order to free him to marry Bee.

While on the run, Cat comes to learn more about the world, the tyranny of the petty princes and Mage Houses, and her own secret heritage and innate magical talents.

Confused? Well, the first 150 pages of this novel are nigh-incoherent - full of confusing staging, stilted dialogue, contrived situations, and screamingly annoying characters (can Bee just go away? Forever?), with piles and piles AND PILES of clunky exposition inexpertly wadded into every nook and crevice. I'm talking about telling over showing, "As You Know Bob*" Dialogue, and just plain infodumping, where our heroine presumably stares off into space while she relates pages of history to the reader that ultimately have nothing to do with the story at all.

I'm not kidding. It's like every character is on the Tourism Board for their particular tribe or clan or country and are incapable of introducing themselves without also listing their country's historical battles, natural resources, and cultural holidays. It's disappointing, because the worldbuilding in itself is interesting and original - an alternate universe in which Rome crumbled before it could become a driving cultural force, leaving Europe and Africa a mosaic of cultures and traditions. The majority of the worldbuilding is easily conveyed by the organic interaction of the characters with the setting.

Thus, the blatant infodumping is entirely unnecessary, which makes it as offensive as it is puzzling. I've read Kate Elliott before - her Crown of Stars septet was amazing and managed to convey an intriguingly gender-bent medieval society without reams and reams of lectures. So why does she go completely overboard overexplaining everything here? Is it because this book is more targeted towards YA readers? Because teenagers need to be talked down to and hand-held through the harder bits?

That being said, the story does start to pick up steam around the time Cat hooks up with her Arrogant, Vain, but Inexplicably Handsome hubby - basically, once the story starts being about Interesting Things That Are Happening Right Now and less about Less-Interesting Things That Happened a Thousand Years Ago To The Ancestors of Minor Characters. To Elliott's credit, once the plot gets going, it's pretty hard to put the book down. She's a master of description, setting, and suspense. However, even when the story is chugging along at full pace, the writing style still seems juvenile and even a little corny, at least in regards to the overwrought dialogue and the characters' behaviour.

It's difficult for me to truly summarize my reaction to this novel - while on the whole, I enjoyed reading it and thought the ideas and the setting were interesting, I felt enormous swathes of dialogue and exposition could have easily been cut and I couldn't really get invested in any of the characters (except perhaps Andevai - he is Inexplicably Handsome). I felt torn between Raging Frustration and a compulsive urge to turn the next page.

So I loved it - and I hated it? Ultimately, I think I loved it because Kate Elliott writes ferociously addictive set pieces and conflicts - and hated it because the author wastes so much time stopping to explain things when she could instead be writing more ferociously addictive set pieces and conflicts. Hopefully this might thin out in future books, such as Cold Steel (which is already on my TBR).

I'm just saying - most people start reading epic fantasy when they're still in their teens. Give teen readers the benefit of the doubt.

You can purchase Cold Magic here.

*As You Know Bob dialogue is when two characters talk about things they both already know for no reason except to inform the reader.


  1. Oh wow. Ha! I don't think it would be possible to have two more different (and yet still mostly positive) reactions to this book than you and I had. I loved Bee for her ferocious loyalty, even though I did see some of the annoying-ness you mention.

    Inexplicably Handsome. LOVE. IT. And so true...

    1. SO TRUE. But Bee - ugh. I really really hated her character. She seemed like a cartoon who acted to serve the plot rather than as a person.

  2. Anonymous6:30 PM

    I had the same problems as you when it came to the first half: way too much contrived info dumping. When the story focused on the characters, the story got good. I ended up liking Cold Magic not so much because of what was on the pages, but on the potential of the story and the characters to be great.

    You're going to love the second half of Cold Fire, I think.

    1. I hope so. I'm going to stick with it because of residual CROWN OF STARS feelings. Even though THEY NEVER EXPLAIN ALAIN and that broke my heart.

  3. Perfect review. I had no idea what was going on in the beginning. It was far too complicated and full of seemingly irrelevant background. But I LOVED the characters - and the relationships. I especially loved Cat and Vai (who sizzle just as much in book 2 ;)) Simply put - I got addicted to this series and quickly. I had to read book two immediately following. It's unfortunate that the beginning of the novel puts off so many readers :(

    I've been wondering where I should start with her other books and thanks to your recommendation I think I'll go for her Crown of Stars :)

    1. Crown of Stars is excellent - but LONG. Like, SEVEN books long. And one flaw - if you love Alain, that's awesome, but she never explains him. Or who he is. Ever. SO FRUSTRATING.

  4. This one was a bit rough for me. The first three hundred pages or so were incredibly slow and I wasn't particularly attached to the characters. Oh, also, it being confusing? Very true. I could not figure out precisely what bit of history was changed to make this alternate timeline. You apparently got that better than I did. I wanted to know, because I felt like that was probably one of the better things about the book, but oy.

    The book picked up towards the end, but, yeah, I came out about the same place you did. I loved her brother though!

    1. Someone on Twitter told me the difference, so I'm with you, I didn't figure it out on my own either. And I thought all that crap about Phoenicians to be so pointless and time consuming.