Cold Magic, by Kate Elliott (2010, Orbit, 502 pages) is described by its author as an "Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons." Pretty darn irresistible, to my taste at least.
And indeed, I was gripped most grippingly by the perilous adventures of young Catherine Hassi Barahal, daughter of a Phoenician family of spies fallen on hard times. The story, set in the early 1830s, begins when a contract, signed and sealed with magic long ago, tears Cat from the bosom of her family and sends her off with her new husband, an arrogant young Cold Mage. It is set in an alternative Europe where the revolutionary tide is beginning to ferment and a Napoleon-like general threatens the balance of power between post-Roman princes and the elemental mages, both oppressors (of the new industrial working class and of the peasantry, respectively)... And, on top of all that, there's the spirit realm as well--the home of the wild hunt, and shapeshifters, and hints of the dreams of dragons to come....
So, in short, there's a lot here to grip the reader. And I was gripped, and enjoyed reading it (bits of it, like the beginning chunk of "two cousins at school in a strange and magical alternate Europe" I can even say I enjoyed lots, and I thought that, in general, the relationship between Catherine and her cousin Beatrice, with the fierce love and loyalty underlying bickering and teasing, is excellently done). And I am certain that there are lots of other aspects to this books that lots of other readers will love to pieces. But unfortunately I kept running into things that kicked me out of the story.
For instance, many of my favorite books have a strong element of romance. I have been known to re-read certain scenes in certain books obsessively....But the story here in Cold Magic-- a girl is forced into marriage with cold and haughty, but incredibly desirable man who seems to spurn her, does things that appear Wrong, and might even be her enemy, but still she keeps contemplating his beautiful jawline-- is the sort of romance that isn't my cup of tea. I do not like "He just tried to kill me! Yet how I want to kiss him!" in my fictional relationships.
I was fascinated by the idea of a Europe in which West Africans migrated northward en masse (due to supernatural difficulties south of the Mediterranean) and settled in amoung the Celts and the Romans--lots of people are African (like the Cold Mage to whom Catherine is married), lots of people aren't, and lots of people are a mix, and it's all just part of the way things are. But gee, I don't think Elliott needed to underline the physical side of things quite as much as she did--I didn't need, on page 456 (almost at the end of the book! A very tense scene!), to be told (of a character we'd met already) that he had "a bold, striking face whose lineaments were stamped by both his Celtic and Afric forebears." I would have liked more interesting elements of West African and Celt culture, and fewer specificities of skin and hair.
And I know this is an alternate world. I try not to be a knee jerk over-reacter. But was it really necessary to make the indigenous inhabitants of North America descendants of troodons, known in that world as trolls? (South America gets to have people).
Finally, the writing felt occasionally off to me--chunks of exposition broke the flow in places; admittedly, it's a complicated history, but chunks are still chunks. Points were occasionally belabored. Characters sometimes acted in ways that seemed odd (I can't be specific without spoilers; this could just have been my problem as a reader, anyway). I never quite relaxed into the feeling that Elliot was in complete control of all many disparate threads of her story (but this might be because this the first of a trilogy--things might be tied together more tightly with the next books).
In short, there's much to admire and enjoy in the complexity of Elliot's alternate Europe and the political, magical, and social maelstrom that is brewing there. There were even moments that flickered at the edges of the numinous. I wouldn't have bothered writing a review of this if I hadn't really almost liked it lots. But it just didn't quite come together for me.
Here are some other thoughts--a glowing review at Fantasy Book Critic, and one that's postive with some reservations at Bookworm Blues.