Review: Cold Magic

Cold Magic is one of those books that kept popping up on my radar for no apparent reason. It seemed like I couldn’t go anywhere on sites like Goodreads or Amazon without tripping over a reference to this book. I read the synopsis and it honestly didn’t sound that interesting to me.

And then I read the words “Afro-Celtic, post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendents of troodons…”

and was just like:

“k, I’ll give this a read.”

The story is set in the 1800s in a world much like our own–only the Roman Empire didn’t collapse until 1000 CE, monotheism does not exist, and the West African peoples collectively known as the Mande fled their homeland when ghouls started pouring out of the salt mines. The Mande then intermarried with Celts to form powerful mage houses.

Oh, and did I mention pretty much everyone is either biracial or a POC? Seriously, there is like, one named white guy in the whole book, and others are bit parts. The protagonist? Her love interest? Every other named character who isn’t that one white guy? All POCs.

In other words, this book pretty much does the opposite of what every other steampunk and fantasy novel written by white people (particularly straight, white cis men) does.

And, you know, it’s pretty good, you know, for a book by a straight cis white womanr.

Please ignore that cover image. It’s terrible.

Cold Magic is the story of Catherine Hassi Barahal, a student at university along with her cousin Beatrice. Though an orphan being raised by her aunt and uncle, she is treated more or less like a daughter, and hopes to one day inherit the Hassi Barahal legacy by becoming a merchant–and some say, a spy.

Everything changes for Cat when the cold mages come for to collect a debt owed them by the Barahals–the eldest Barahal daughter in marriage; suddenly Cat finds herself abandoned by the only family she’s ever known and married to a man she’s never met, Cat must use her wits to survive, for if blood can’t be trusted, who can you trust?

by far the best thing about Cold Magic for me was the world. Even though the story takes place in a small section of the world, it feels huge, and while the big world-changing historical events are fascinating, its the small details that really make the world come alive. Everything from the way characters greet each other to how they’re constantly making small offerings and libations on their travels (because, yes, everyone is a polytheist, except if you ask a natural scientist, who maintains that deities do not exist). Oh, and everyone hates the Romans, because they, you know, colonized everyone.

It’s also a world on the cusp of an Industrial Revolution, and there’s also a lot of tension between social classes, and between the mages–magic doesn’t mesh well with technology–and everyone else. It’s a world on the brink of great change.

However, we don’t really see a whole lot of that until the end. The bulk of the book is concerned with Catherine and her unwanted marriage to the most selfish, vain character in the known universe.

There’s also some subtle and not-so-subtle dismantling of sexism in the novel. Throughout the book, male characters have a habit of talking down to or past Catherine and Beatrice (especially Bee, who is a bit more “frivolous”) which makes it really satisfying when Bee finally gets to rip one of the antagonists a new one. Cat herself is no slouch at swordplay and doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind, and even though she does admit that she finds Andevai aesthetically appealing, she doesn’t let those feelings get in the way of the fact that he kind of tried to kill her, except then he didn’t, but she isn’t forgiving him even if it was an accident.

Also, and this is important, Cat and Bee support each other. Yes, occasionally they poke fun and fight, but at the end of the day, they have each other’s backs, and it’s this bond that pretty much drives the entire plot, not Catherine’s marriage to a man. In fact, for all the time that she devotes to discussing her father’s ideas, I would argue that it was her mother that was the more significant of her parents, at least plot-wise, and women, despite limitations in society, are teachers, lawyers, djeliw (they’re like bards), warriors, mercenaries, innkeepers, and respected elders.

I think, in the hands of others authors, this could have become one of those stories where Catherine is brought to a mage house and ends up having to navigate all the politicking between its members. There would likely be the “other woman” who was cheated out of her marriage to Andevai, and perhaps there would be that attractive guy Cat would instantly fall in love with and bemoan her marriage to Andevai until it was rendered null and void by magic or the power of love or something. Alternatively, she would end up falling in love with Andevai, and together they would overcome all adversity.

However, I would remind you that this is a fantasy novel, so, upon reaching the mage house, Catherine discovers that Andevai screwed up and is now out for her blood (and Beatrice is in danger) so Catherine runs away the first chance she gets.

Unfortunately, this is where I feel the book falters, because there’s no real sense of urgency. Cat’s thoughts tend to wander, and I definitely think that there are places where descriptive text could have been cut and it wouldn’t really have made any difference to the story. The dialogue also seems odd at first, characters have a certain ritualistic, more formal way of speaking that can be a little off-putting, and there’s also a tendency to toss out proverbs and figures of speech at the drop of a hat, perhaps not surprising considering most of the people in this world come from cultures where more indirect ways of speaking are common, but at times it can seem like the dialogue isn’t really making a lot of sense.

The one other gripe I have with the book (related to the dialogue) is the amount of repetition. You could easily make a drinking game out of it: take a sip whenever Cat mentions that women in her family learn how to fight and/or ride, take a sip whenever she corrects someone on the pronunciation of djeli, take a sip whenever she mentions her father’s journals, take a sip every time a guy leers at her, it’s like the author traded infodumping for this endless stream of repetition.

In short, I’m interested enough to pick up the sequel, Cold Fire because I want to see if the author actually follows through with all the tension she established in the first book. I can say with confidence that this is one book that’s definitely worth your money, if only for the reason that it eviscerates the common perception that fantasy is about all-white worlds and things like sexism, classism, and colonialism are there because it’s “realistic” and never challenged in any way.

More like this book, please, MOAR.

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