Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

Reviewed by Edward James

Cold Magic cover

Alis A. Rasmussen published one fantasy novel (The Labyrinth Gate, 1988), to put alongside her SFnal Highroad trilogy (A Passage of Stars, Revolution's Shore, The Price of Ransom, all three published in 1990). As Kate Elliott, however, Rasmussen has published the Jaran sequence of four science fiction novels (1992-1994) as well as eleven fantasy novels. Indeed, since 1997, the year in which the first Elliott fantasy, King’s Blood, appeared, she has published around 8250 pages of fantasy (in the editions I have been using); in quantity, at least, she has become one of the most prominent voices in contemporary fantasy. To some extent this review of her latest novel (which is the first installment of her third main fantasy sequence, following on the seven-volume Crown of Stars sequence and the Crossroads trilogy) is an assessment of her work so far, and of the three exercises in fantasy world-building which she has engaged in.

I have just returned from attending the public defense of Stefan Ekman’s excellent doctoral dissertation, Writing Worlds, Writing Landscapes: An Exploration of Settings in Fantasy (Lund: unpublished PhD) (and discovered, among many other things, that in Sweden they still physically nail their theses to a board or door, just as Martin Luther did in Germany in 1517). Ekman started his dissertation by looking at maps in fantasies as a crucial gateway to learning about the fantasy creation. Elliott too starts her new trilogy with a two-page map, inviting us to speculate about the world we are about to enter. This map is much more detailed than the mere sketches that began both Crown of Stars and Crossroads, and much more neatly than either of those it makes apparent the world that she is going to write about. It is, in Ekman's terms, a doceme (a term borrowed from document studies), that is, a part of a document. Map and text each constitute a doceme, and together form the document as a whole, that is, the fantasy book. Some maps are merely illustrative of the text; Ekman calls these paratexts (a term borrowed from Genette), but the map in Cold Magic is a doceme—it contributes information about the world of the fantasy book not necessarily found in the text.

It is Europa, in 1837, Augustan Era: presumably, then, the equivalent of around AD 1810, depending on when one dates the origins of Augustus's empire. But is this necessarily the same Augustus as ours?—after all, Augustus is a title, assumed by Octavius in 27 BC, and not a name, and Europa is very different indeed from our own Europe, above all in the north. Scandinavia and Scotland are still covered by ice (as is Switzerland); the land-bridge joining Britain to Europe is still there. However, clearly this world shares a history with ours. Although only Italy and the Balkans are labelled "Empire of Rome", signs of a former Roman Empire are everywhere. Some place-names in western Europe (Lutetia, Tolosa, Burdigala, Massilia, Tarraco) are the same as they were in Roman times in our world; others have been changed by a letter or two. Londinium, here, is Londun, and Camulodunum is Camlun. Adurnum, the Roman settlement which probably lies under Aldrington (a few kilometers west of the center of Brighton), is here Adurnam, and is the only urban setting which we see in this novel. On a fine day, from Adurnam you can see where the Rhenus (the Rhine) emerges into an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean; Adurnam itself stands at the mouth of the River Solent (although if one wanted to be pedantic, one would comment that in Ice Age times the river which was at the origins of the modern Solent channel probably ran about sixty or so kilometers west of Adurnam).

Some Roman place-names have followed the same evolution as many in our world, dropping the place-name itself and retaining the tribal name in the genitive plural: thus, Canterbury here is not Durovernum, but Cantiacorum; on the other hand, Lutetia Parisiorum, which became Paris is our world, is here Lutetia. Some place-names, rather inexplicably, have the same form as in modern French: thus Arras, and Anvers (the French for Antwerp). The fact that Scandinavia and the Baltic are still under ice perhaps explains one absence from the map: there are no Germanic place-names, and therefore presumably no Germanic language, and certainly no invasion of the Roman Empire by German-speakers (whom some people still believe in our world emigrated from Scandinavia in Roman times). The only exception is Newfield, north of Adurnam, which perhaps can be explained as a translation of the Roman or Celtic place-name into the modern English used in the novel (something which doesn't happen anywhere else on the map).There are Slavs in eastern Europe, apparently; and Hungary is part of the Empire of the Avars, a people from Central Asia (as Hungary was in our own world between the sixth and eighth centuries AD).

It soon becomes apparent in the novel that not only did the Romans lose their hold over much of western Europe around 1000 Augustan Era because of various separatist tendencies (much as in our own history, actually, just a lot later), but that none of the Judaic religions appeared, or at least none found a home in the western Mediterranean. There is no Christianity or Islam, though (since in this world Hannibal defeated Scipio at the battle of Zama) there is Punic paganism, mixed with all the other ancient cults. (Some of the social and economic roles of Jews in our Europe are taken up by Phoenicians in this one.) The invasion of the Persians brought an end to Carthage.

This is not, however, alternative history. A plague of ghouls has largely emptied Africa (Britain is home to refugees from different parts of Africa, and they have carved out positions of importance for themselves). In the first chapter we meet an eru, a being from the spirit world; and we hear about dragons, which apparently live in China, and about great sea-monsters in the depths of the ocean. Under the ice live the feared Wild Hunt, who must surely play a major role in future volumes of the trilogy.

At the start of Cold Magic we learn that an airship is about to arrive in Adurnam: only the second airship that has ever managed to cross the Atlantic. We learn very little about contacts with North America, however. But we do learn that there was no Columbus (America was discovered and named by the Welshman apMeuric, Amerike—an idea derived from Alfred Hudd's 1908 theory in our own world). And before Europeans came, there were no humans in North America, only trolls (very untraditional trolls too: highly intelligent, and apparently feathered dinosaurs). Given the howls of protest at Patricia A. Wrede's fictional "genocide" of the Native Americans in North America in her Thirteenth Child, Elliott is rather brave to have done this (or else wrote it before the storm broke over Wrede in May 2009). By the end of this novel the protagonist has not traveled far from Adurnam, but we shall learn more about the Americas later in the trilogy; the author has said on LiveJournal that much of one volume is going to be set in the Caribbean. I hope we meet more trolls too: there is an endearing one in this book. She's a solicitor.

In terms of worldbuilding, all I have really discussed so far is the geography, but I do believe that Elliott has done a much more satisfying job than she did with the Crown of Stars sequence. What made me uneasy throughout those novels (or certainly at the beginning, before I had immersed myself properly) was Elliott's decision to create a world geographically only a little different from the medieval world, although the names have been changed. Salians take the place of French, the Wendar are the Germans—and they are Germans judging by their personal names (even though the medieval Wends were Slavs). But the town names are often our own place-names. Sometimes they are almost in the right place, and altered only slightly: like Quedlinhame for Quedlinburg. But I was disturbed when I discovered that Autun was on the River Rhowne (because it isn’t on the Rhône in our world); and even more disturbed when I realized that Autun had been shifted from southern France up into Germany. If new names had been invented, I would have had no problem with this. But names from our world are assigned seemingly at random to this world; I found that disconcerting, and all the time it made me think of our own medieval world in ways that were almost certainly inappropriate. And while it was clever in one way for Isidore of Seville, author of the Etymologies in our world, to become in this world Isidora of Seviya, author of the Etymologies, or to have Augustina write her Confessions, or to have Gregorius of Tours, the sixth-century historian, become Gregoria in Elliott’s world, it was nevertheless very disconcerting. This is not an alternate history, and there was no reason for the near-identity of these people to characters in the real world. The Crown of Stars series is neither a fully secondary world, nor an alternate history; I couldn’t categorize it, and that bothered me (although, of course, that is largely my problem, and not Elliott's). The Eiki, this world's equivalent of the Vikings, savage sea-borne raiders coming from the north, are not even humans.

Despite my problems with the geography, I recognize that the Crown of Stars books offered a far more radical and interesting society than we see—so far—in the newest trilogy. The pseudo-medieval world of the Crown of Stars sequence, partially derived from Elliott’s readings in the history of Ottonian and Salian Germany (see bibliography in volume 2), differs in one crucial way from the real medieval world. Its version of Christianity derived from legends about a female god-on-earth, leaving the way for a female domination of the Church. The biscops (a word she presumably derives from the Old English form for "bishop") are all female, including the biscop of Rome; the great thinkers of the Church (see Isidora, Augustina, and Gregoria, above) are female too. As a consequence of these changes, perhaps, there is much greater equality of men and women in the secular world too. Duchesses are not just the wives of dukes, but powerful women in their own right; women lead armies into battle, and fight in those battles, on a regular basis. As a "what if?" it is intriguing, though one might wish that more had been done with it, and that the Crown of Stars sequence itself was not such a sprawling ocean of words (with, if I have counted correctly from the Cast of Characters published at the end of volume 6, over four hundred named characters). There are memorable characters, and some wonderful scenes; but there is some rather plodding material too, and just too much confusing detail and startling changes of point of view.

Elliott's second fantasy sequence, the Crossroads trilogy (Spirit Gate, 2007; Shadow Gate, 2008; and Traitors' Gate, 2009), is much tighter. It suffered a little from trilogitis: the first volume set up the interesting world and its problems; the third volume resolved them all satisfactorily and rather unexpectedly; but the second volume did not have the same pace or tension, and flagged noticeably. (A good part of it, indeed, takes place chronologically at the same time as the events of the first volume, depicting those events from a different point of view, which detracted from my enjoyment at least.) The world of this sequence, unlike the other two fantasy series, is wholly alternate, without any connection with our own world. There is a rather intriguing link with a science-fictional world, however: the Qin, one of the societies described, based on a Mongol-like nomadic warrior society (from the days of Genghis Khan), are nearly identical with the Jaran, whom Elliott created for her only science fiction series (starting with Jaran itself). In both cases, Elliott tinkered with ideas of marriage and inheritance within that society in order to experiment with a different kind of power relationships between men and women. Not that different in some ways, perhaps: Elliott herself (in the introduction to the 2002 tenth anniversary edition) described Jaran as "Genghis Khan meets Jane Austen". Darcy as Genghis Khan? Hmm.

Most people will probably remember the Crossroads trilogy not for the Qin so much as for the reeves, who attempt to maintain justice across the Hundred with the help of their telepathically connected giant eagles. One initially remembers the eagles who intervened at crucial moments in the story of the ring-bearer as he crosses Middle Earth (and then one thinks of the weyrs of Pern); but the way Elliott uses her eagle-flying reeves is very different, and rather truer to the life of real eagles than anything we see in Tolkien. The story is about the efforts of the reeves to maintain their role as justices, in a world from which their original masters, the Guardians, had apparently disappeared and in which the Hundred is struggling to cope with warfare. The last of the Crossroads books, Traitors' Gate, was, I believe, the most successful of all of Elliott's individual fantasy novels up to that point (I read all of Elliott's fantasy in order to prepare for this review). It is tightly plotted, has good pacing and effective suspense, and builds to a satisfying climax. The last few pages were (to me) unexpected, and cleverly achieved the dual purpose of rounding off all the different strands of the Crossroads trilogy while at the same time offering possibilities of a sequel that would take events in a very different direction.

For all their originality, the Crown of Stars and Crossroads sequences draw on a long tradition of pseudo-medieval fantasy. Cold Magic, set in a world which in many ways resembles our nineteenth century, with the beginning of industrialization and the development of such novelties as airships, thus came as quite a shock: a new departure for Elliott. Earlier reviewers have labeled it steampunk; one reviewer implied that Elliott was jumping on a band-wagon, while more than one have been disappointed that it was being described as steampunk while there was actually very little steampunk in it. Elliott herself does not actually seem interested in developing the alternate industrial development which is (I take it) fundamental to steampunk. As in her other two fantasy series, there is much more focus on the fantasy elements of magic.

"The history of the world begins in ice, and it will end in ice," begins the novel. It is a not untypical portentous opening for a fantasy novel; but Elliott, again typically, punctures our expectation. It is not a grand prophecy—not yet, anyway—for it continues, "Or at least that is how the dawn chill felt in the bed-chamber." Cold permeates the novel (we are still in an Ice Age), and the cold magic of the title revolves around the control of heat; cold mages can suck out the heat of any fire and extinguish it. There is a memorable scene towards the end where a powerful cold mage arrives at a factory, and the factory slowly dies, as the mage's presence turns out the furnaces one by one. The cold mage whom we see most frequently, Andevai Diarisso Haranwy, is the—at first sight—wicked villain who is going to blight our young heroine's life. But he behaves even more like Darcy in the first part of Pride and Prejudice than did the Genghis-figure in Jaran, so we may assume that, like Darcy, he will reveal his true lovable self in due course (he offers us glimpses already in volume 1). We may note that the action of this alternate history fantasy takes place chronologically during the life-time of Jane Austen in our world, and the main character, Catherine, has the same first name as the heroine of Northanger Abbey—which is underlined by the comment in the novel that Catherine is an incongruous name for a Phoenician (as Romans called the Kena'ani, her people). In her dedication Elliott refers to the novel as a "mash-up"; but it may take until volume 3 before we realize all the sources of Elliott's inspiration.

The most significant innovation as far as Elliott's work is concerned is that the whole novel is told in the first person: it is narrated by Cat—Catherine Hassi Barahal—our twenty-year-old heroine. The world is seen entirely through her eyes: eyes which are not always very well-informed and which have fairly limited horizons. The bewildering changes of points of view, and large range of characters, which at times confused the reader of the earlier fantasy series, are absent here, resulting in a much stronger and more accessible narrative than Elliott readers are used to. The book also has much more the feel of a YA novel than anything Elliott has written before, which might suggest that Elliott is hoping to broaden her audience (although it does not seem to be marketed as YA either in the UK or the USA).

Mysteries are set up in this novel, and not all of them are explained. Cat's own home (she was orphaned at six, and lives with her uncle and aunt) is the focus of some of these mysteries. Her uncle receives strange visitors; mention is made of her uncle as a maker of codes; and a book apparently written by Cat's dead father is referred to as a code-book. But the greatest mystery comes with the arrival of a cold mage, Andevai, at the Hassi Barahel house. He discovers that Cat is the eldest girl of the household, and marries her on the spot, with the connivance of Cat's uncle and aunt, in what seems to be the fulfillment of a contract made with them many years before. Cat has been betrayed; she is dragged unwillingly away from the house and her home-town, and taken into a disturbingly dangerous world. Only much later does she find out that the cold mage had been commanded to marry the eldest daughter of the Hassi Barahel, not the eldest girl in the household; her uncle and aunt had deliberately misled the cold mage in order to save their own daughter. It was her cousin Beatrice (Bee) who was the intended victim, because "the diviners told us that their shells and sands revealed that the eldest daughter of the Adurnam Hassi Barahel lineage will walk the dreams of dragons" (p. 206). We do not know what this means; but we learn that it is dangerous. Many years previously a woman with this talent was killed by the Wild Hunt. Nevertheless, this talent was desired by the ambitious Four Moons House, the grouping of cold mages to which Andevai belongs. Cat's cousin Bee has prophetic dreams, which may be what "walking the dreams of dragons" is all about; and so the diviners' shells and sands might seem to be right about her. But we can see that Cat is special too: she can perceive the spirit world or spirit beings, which are hidden to most.

As soon as Cat is discovered to be the wrong girl, Four Moons House orders her killed. The second half of the novel is about her efforts to escape from them, with her slow realization that Andevai is going to protect her rather than kill her. In the course of her adventures she discovers that she can walk in the spirit world and that she has strange friends from that world, one of whom claims she is related to them, and another who even claims to be her brother. She discovers more about her parents, and more about her world, including the fact (unusual in a fantasy world, but corresponding very much to our own world at the beginning of the nineteenth century) that there is a good deal of radical agitation against the authorities and the aristocracies who run things. Elliott's new fantasy world is satisfyingly complex; and we end the novel knowing that there is a lot more to learn about it.

The novel concludes with two prophecies, concerning Cat and her cousin Bee. One of the two will choose a path that will change the course of the war, and the other will learn "to walk the dreams of dragons". We assume that Bee will walk the dreams of dragons; we have seen her having prophetic dreams. Of course, since this is an Elliott novel we cannot necessarily be sure that this proves that the prophecy relates to Bee. Nor are we in Diana Wynne Jones's Fantasyland, where, the Tough Guide assures us, "All Prophecies come true". And we do not know if walking the dreams of dragons is mere metaphor, or whether before long the reader will get a glimpse of the real dragons that exist on the other side of the world. On Chekhov's principle that if a gun is on stage in Act One it has to be used by Act Three, we may eventually discover that dragons do more than dream. I am looking forward to finding out.


Edward James is Professor of Medieval History at University College Dublin. In 2009 he was alarmed to find himself President of the Irish Historical Society, Chair-Elect of the School of History at UCD, and Chair of the Science Fiction Foundation all at the same time. He was editor of Foundation for sixteen years; his co-edited Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction won a Hugo in 2005. He was on the Clarke juries responsible for picking The Handmaid's Tale and The Sea and Summer in 1987 and 1988.