Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

Once in awhile, you finish reading a book, you set it down, you contemplate how you’re going to write a review for it, and you know that it will be pretty much near impossible to be coherent at all, because all you want to say is stuff like “Wow–that was awesome, I can’t really explain why–forget that, I can’t even talk or think clearly right now because I haven’t come back to reality yet–you, over there, read this book, now.” The last time this happened to me was 6 months ago after I finished reading Fire by Kristin Cashore. And now, it’s just happened to me again with Cold Magic by Kate Elliott.

Catherine has been raised by her Uncle Jonatan and Aunt Tilly ever since she was orphaned as a small child. Her life is familiar, normal, and easy to understand. She is best friends with her cousin Beatrice, who is only two months younger than her; the two young women attend school at a select academy, where they learn about science and the new technology that is revolutionizing their world. Brand new machines like airships, printing presses, and factories run by combustion are just now emerging in a world previously dominated by feudal-type Princes and Mage Houses where magic, specifically cold magic, has held sway over Europa ever since the Roman Empire was defeated and shunted from the icy northern continent.

Catherine’s world thus consists of lessons at school and teasing Beatrice about her latest crush on the young men at the academy, until one day everything changes. Forced in to a magical contract contrived many years ago by her family and the cold mages of Four Moon House, Catherine, as the eldest daughter in her family, is married essentially against her will to a cold mage so vain, so egotistical and full of his own superiority that he barely seems to acknowledge her presence in the carriage that takes them both away from the only home and family Catherine has ever known. What follows is nothing Catherine ever could have imagined happening to her. Abandoned by everyone she has ever loved, Catherine must set out on her own and discover the truth about her heritage and the rapidly changing forces surrounding her world.

Okay. I thought that was a sufficiently epic and interesting summary. Even so, I haven’t even mentioned half of the well-written characters and twisty plotty adventures that are included in Cold Magic. In an interview with Elliott, the author describes her novel as “an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons (which were a small, intelligent, and agile species of dinosaur)”. An incredibly disparate disarray of ideas and genres you say; however, it works so well and is very much held together by a strongly written heroine in Catherine.

I was definitely pulled into this novel by our protagonist. As well, her sisterly/best-friend relationship with her cousin Bee was a very realistic, believable, and enjoyable dynamic that I actually haven’t seen all that much of in young adult novels that aim towards a mostly female demographic. I think a lot of people assume that girls don’t want to read about friendships with girls, which is “booorring”; they want to read about infatuating romances with cute boys. Untrue, I think. Or at least for this girl. So Elliott’s take was very refreshing. Catherine was put into a lot of new situations and I enjoyed how, even though she pretty much had no idea what was going on half the time, she was intelligent and able to use what skills and knowledge she had to pull it together and stand up for herself. Also refreshing; too much of the time I think we get heroines that are annoyingly deer-in-the-headlights at the beginnings of adventures. Even after all the horrible things that happen to her, Catherine is rarely whiny and I very much liked her voice in the narration.

The plotting and total changes in scenery and surroundings that Elliott put Catherine through was also very impressive. Catherine basically begins in a lower-middle-class home in the city and travels through countryside and is even pulled into an alternate world (the spirit world, as they call it) at one point and meets a very diverse cast of characters. The universe that Catherine lives in is essentially an alternate history version of our own with a bit of fantasy tossed in; after the Roman Empire sank into itself, the majority of the European continent (or Europa, as they call it) came under the power of petty, feudal-era-type Princes and Lords, who were balanced by the respected power of the magical Houses. A lot of the geography is the same (there is a map included at the beginning of the book) but countries like England, France, and Spain don’t exist, and people of different ethnicities and different cultures have mixed together in new ways, creating a brand-new history.

With the introduction of combustion technology and steam-driven mechanics, Cold Magic is a new addition to the growing genre of “steampunk fantasy,” which I, before this novel, didn’t find particularly enticing. I’ve read Leviathan (Scott Westerfeld), Clockwork Heart (Dru Pagliassotti) and The Gaslight Dogs (Karin Lowachee) but I only had lukewarm experiences with books in the genre. Ah, Mortal Engines (Philip Reeve) was good. But Cold Magic is definitely the best example of the genre I’ve read so far.

Along with the personal journey of our heroine, the reader is basically immersed in a very fluidly changing culture that includes ideas about socio-economic divides, power and how it should be wielded, democratic representation, revolution, and the role of science and technology in a changing society. A lot of really interesting ideas, and I am really so impressed by how Elliott wove it all together. This is the first book of hers that I’ve read, and I’m really looking forward to checking out her other books. I think she also phrased the little romance perfectly, in an understated, kind of wistful way that I really enjoy and not all authors can do well. No bodice-ripping here, sorry if that’s your thing.

In every aspect–adventure, fantasy, characters, and romance–Elliott hit all the right buttons for me and I am only sorry that I will have to wait so long for the sequel. I believe it’s going to be a trilogy, and the ending of Cold Magic and the happenings within have set us up very nicely for a long arc of adventure. I am really just so impressed and floored by Elliott’s writing and storytelling abilities; I have found a new favorite author to follow and I really can’t wait for what she comes up with next.

How I got this book: The author, Kate Elliott, provided me with an Advanced Reading Copy.
When does it come out? September 9, 2010
Genres: Fantasy, Steampunk, Alternate History, Young Adult Fiction, Adventure
Publisher: Orbit Books, I first heard about Cold Magic through this publisher’s website; I basically want to read every book they have on their publishing schedules.
Author Website:
Also, her blog, where you have the chance to win an ARC of Cold Magic:


3 thoughts on “Cold Magic by Kate Elliott”

  1. I saw the cover of this one on another blog (can’t remember which one now though) and loved it – good to hear it lives up to the cover, though it didn’t really scream steampunk to me!

    I’ll have to look out for this when it hits the shelves.

    1. It comes out September 9th, but there’s currently a giveaway at the author’s blog if you want to try that! It’s very worth reading 🙂

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