Fantasy Review: ‘Cold Magic’ by Kate Elliott

I really like Kate Elliot.  I raved about her ‘Crossroads’ trilogy.  She is a great world builder (her blog is titled ‘I Make up Worlds’), has always shown interesting characters, and usually her writing quickly draws me in and keeps hold of me.  I have had this series on my to-read list for way to long, but finally I got to it.  To my complete surprise, and eventual disappointment, the book left me a little cold.

In typical Elliot fashion the world building shows a lot of promise.  An alternate history that is a little hard to explain.  Rome kept some power, the Phoenicians built a fairly strong sea-trading empire, Mali was a power before disaster forced a mass exodus into Europe.  There is a mix of steampunk technology along with mage houses acting as focal points of power.  I could probably read an entire faux history book on this alternative world.  A lot of questions are left on the table, even the map doesn’t show where a lot of the lands I wonder about are.  More than anything else, it was this world building that left me hoping for more, and was strong enough for me to know I will continue the series no matter what.
It was a good thing I was so intrigued by the world building, because the story itself did nothing for me.  I have read a lot of ‘first books’ in trilogies, but rarely have I seen one in which so little is resolved.  A great many plot points are brought up, but very few go anywhere.  A Roman infiltrator in the girl’s school, what power does Rome still have?  Why was he at the school?  No hints given.  A book Cat learns is a code book, what is it for?  Who knows?  Certainly not the reader.  Why is everyone so interested in dreams with dragons?  More questions than answers in almost every thread of the plot.  When Cat breaks through to the spirit world I don’t know why, nor what is important about it.  At least twice her mystical, previously unknown brother disappears, both times she broods on what might have been.  I just found myself caring very little.  The magic system gives nothing, I still don’t really know much about the cold mages themselves, and even less about the meager magic Cat wields

I also wasn’t too fond of Cat as a main character.  The brooding over her brother when his disappears is only the beginning.  She has a strange fascination with Andevai, even when he is basically kidnaps her from home.  She is semi resourceful, but most of her good breaks are luck rather than her own doing.  Ironically villain Andevai worked much better as a character for me, torn between who he is and who he wants to be, loyalty to his house verse loyalty to his family.  His set up is great, initially a cold villain, growing into a more human character.  Cat’s cousin Bee was also very entertaining, knowledgeable in reading people and playing off their expectations of her.  There were other characters, but I have already forgotten most of them as well.

This is a fairly disjointed review, but I have rarely been so conflicted about a book.  I finished it last night and while the world building stands out in my mind still, I feel I would need cliff notes to remember the plot.  I tried twice to write a quick synopsis at the beginning and gave up.

3 stars, because it was just good enough to make me hope the sum of all parts will make the series better than the first book.

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