Cold Steel by Kate Elliott

cold steel by kate elliottThis is the 3rd novel in Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy.

Summary (from Amazon): Trouble, treachery, and magic just won’t stop plaguing Cat Barahal. The Master of the Wild Hunt has stolen her husband Andevai. The ruler of the Taino kingdom blames her for his mother’s murder. The infamous General Camjiata insists she join his army to help defeat the cold mages who rule Europa. An enraged fire mage wants to kill her. And Cat, her cousin Bee, and her half-brother Rory, aren’t even back in Europa yet, where revolution is burning up the streets.

Revolutions to plot. Enemies to crush. Handsome men to rescue.

Cat and Bee have their work cut out for them.

My Thoughts: Cold Steel is the last novel in Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy (#1: Cold Magic, #2: Cold Fire). If you are looking for an epic series with adventure, travel, terrific world-building, a bit of romance, an intriguing and utterly unique heroine, a deep friendship, and liberal amounts of humor, this is it.

Cold Steel was a great wrap-up, and it left me aching for more in the way that the best books do. However, I suspect that I did myself an extreme disfavor by waiting so long between the 2nd novel and this one–part of that was, of course, Life, and the general obnoxiousness that comes along with it, and it rendered me fairly confused and sometimes disinterested near the beginning of Cold Steel. I had forgotten some of the “rules” that fantasy / alternate-universe novels like this come with, and for a decent amount of time I was left wondering about many characters’ motives and decisions, which took away some of the enjoyment for me. I should have re-read Cold Fire again before embarking on this 3rd novel, and maybe I’ll attempt that scenario sometime in the future. I think that would change a lot of the way I ended up feeling about the book.

I’d like to reiterate a point I made in my review of Cold Magic, and that is that I really enjoy the portrayal of friendship between Cat, our protagonist, and her cousin/BFF, Bee. I do think it’s a shame that so many of the books specifically marketed towards (young) women feature so few female relationships, and if there are multiple women featured in the novel, they are usually enemies or fighting over a man. Especially with all the recent attention about The Bechdel Test, this is a problem that goes beyond literature. There is a romance in this trilogy, the one between Cat and her husband, Andevai, and it is certainly romantic, swoon-worthy, and heartbreaking at times (as all good romances are), but it is not the only meaningful relationship in our female protagonist’s life–it’s one of many, and that, to me, is a much more realistic and honest portrayal of romance.

Another strong point of Elliott’s is her ability to make her characters fully 3-dimensional. The characters in Cold Fire have weaknesses, and not stupid, shallow “weaknesses” thrown in to make sure that the character isn’t a flawless Mary Sue. Andevai, Cat’s husband and romantic interest, is flawed and these flaws can be both humorous (his pride and vanity lead him to accumulate an impressive number of clothes that have to be lugged across half the continent by Cat and Bee) and serious: Andevai’s loyalty to his past, and an overwhelming desire for respect and recognition cause him and Cat to struggle greatly with their relationship and their dual involvement in the revolution they are fighting for. There are doubts, realistic doubts that caused me as a reader to waver as well.

I was first drawn into this series because I so enjoyed viewing it through Cat’s eyes. She is a unique heroine in that she isn’t really a heroine–in any typical fantasy story, her personality, actions, and motivations would have cast her as the sidekick, and her cousin Bee as the heroine. This is really a story about a side-player in a greater drama with her own reasons for doing what she does, and which might not line up with the traditional, heroic notion of right-and-wrong, save-the-world, goody-goody. I really enjoyed this in the first and second novels, but (and this might be a side effect of the aforementioned delay between my reading the 2nd and 3rd books) she really lost me a few times in Cold Steel. Certain pivotal moments had me going “whaaaat?” at her actions and thoughts, and I didn’t connect with her as well. I ended up not being as invested or impressed emotionally because I didn’t understand her motivations and reactions.

Overall, this is a very good trilogy with a world that I hope Elliott will return to sometime in the future. It’s so fleshed-out and well-developed I feel like she must have more stories and characters off-stage that deserve their chance to be told. Cold Steel was not my favorite of the series, but it’s still good. Also funny. It’s an interesting kind of humor–lots of different kinds of humor, actually. So enjoyable!

Author Websitehttp://www.kateelliott.com/

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Jaran by Kate Elliott

Summary from book cover: Tess had been cursed by an accident of birth to be the sister of the one man honored by the alien conquerors of human-run space. Her brother, Charles Soerensen, the leader of Earth’s rebellion, had been given a dukedom after his defeat and now ruled over far-distant worlds. And Tess was his only heir, a position and responsibility she was not yet willing to assume. So she fled to a world in her brother’s domain, a world where–she was soon to discover–the alien conquerors were themselves mixed up in some covert and dangerous missions.

And despite herself, Tess was suddenly forced to become both player and pawn in an interstellar game of intrigue and politics, caught between protecting her brother’s interests, and her own growing involvement with Ilya, the leader of the nomadic tribe with whom she had taken shelter. But it soon became apparent to Tess that whether Charles or the aliens proved the victor here, Ilya and his people were balanced at a crucial point in their history–a point at which they must either learn to adapt to the incursions of more advanced civilizations or, by remaining rooted in their own traditions, face inevitable extinction.

My Thoughts: So far during this break, I’ve been kind of re-introducing myself to reading fiction (something I don’t have time for during school) by starting out with really light teen romance, then intriguing fantasy, then a darker retelling of Jane Eyre, and finally graduating to this 500 page science fiction epic of Kate Elliott’s, which is only first in a series of four volumes.

I was first introduced to Elliott when I read an ARC of her most recent novel, Cold Fire, and loved it. It took me awhile to get around to looking at her older, previously published books (Jaran was published in 1992). While Jaran is very different form Cold Fire story-wise and kind of style-wise, I very much enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

Elliott does a great job of balancing two very different worlds in her novel: on one level, the level we begin with, Tess and her brother Charles are involved in political intrigue within an intergalactic empire ruled by aliens. The technology is far more advanced than anything we have today, and inter-planetary travel has been the norm for awhile. There are spaceships, laser guns, and all the trappings of an advanced science fiction universe. On the other hand, when Tess is stranded on the planet Rhui, she joins a nomadic tribe that reminded me very strongly of the Mongols–these people ride horses across steppe-type geography, interact as tribal groups, and live in round tents (yurts!). Ilya, the tribes’ leader, is extremely reminiscent of Genghis Khan at the beginning of his military career. While there are a lot of similarities between the fictional characters of Jaran and the Central Asian nomads in our world, there are also a lot of cultural differences that Elliott points out (for example, the Jaran are a matriarchal society). Anyways I’m just going on about this because I have a strange obsession with Mongolia and Mongols and Genghis Khan ever since I read Conn Iggulden’s books and took a class on it last quarter and it’s hard to explain and now Elliott my new favorite author wrote a book about nomadic steppe cultures when I was like, two years old, so it all must mean something of course.

Moving on: it was great to follow Tess around as she both adjusts and falls in love with this “primitive” culture, but also has to balance her obligation to her lordly brother by spying on the alien Chapali who are doing something extremely suspicious on this planet. She also has to keep any sign of technology or advanced space-faring civilization away from the tribe and family that she’s living with. I think I mentioned this in my review of Cold Magic, but I am so impressed by the way Elliott manages to tie everything together so perfectly; I’ve read novels where authors have failed spectacularly at balancing so many different cultures and elements and story lines, but Elliott really does it so well. I was interested in everything that was going on and even got pretty emotionally invested, always a sign of a good novel. When I’m thinking about The Best Novels I Have Ever Read, a realm populated by books that just have that extra oomph, that major goodness, unexplainable stick-with-you-for-the-rest-of-your-life, I think this will included.

The story and the atmosphere reminded me a teeny bit of Robin McKinley–almost like a more science fiction-y and well proportioned and differently styled The Blue Sword.

Don’t be mistaken, this is an epic novel of epic proportions with lots of leftover fodder for many sequels, but I finished it in about a day because I was just that engrossed. I already bought the sequel off Amazon.

Author’s Website: http://kateelliott.com/
Another review from The SF Site; actually this review is a lot better than mine, I think you should read it: http://www.sfsite.com/09a/jar40.htm

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: www.kateelliott.com
Also, her blog, where you have the chance to win an ARC of Cold Magic: http://kateelliott.livejournal.com/