fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsCold Fire by Kate Elliott fantasy book reviewsCold Fire by Kate Elliott

This is the second book in Kate Elliott’s SPIRIT WALKER trilogy, preceded by Cold Magic and concluded in Cold Steel, but which manages to avoid most of the pitfalls inherent in many second installments. It’s a direct continuation of the previous book (making it impossible to start reading with this one) and there’s still a long way to go till the finish line, but despite ending on something of a cliff-hanger, it still delivers a relatively satisfying story-arc with a climactic finish and a sense of completeness.

Catherine Bell Barahal has been having a rough year. Married against her will to an aristocratic Cold Mage in her cousin’s place, she not only learns that her parentage isn’t what she thought it was, but that (having realized that she isn’t the bride that was promised them) her husband’s family now want her dead. Fleeing for her safety and discovering her roots provided the main thrust of the first book, with the added twist that her unwanted husband Andevai ends up falling for her.

All this is set against a backdrop of political turmoil, in which various larger-than-life personalities are gathering together forces and preparing for war, as well as disorder in the spirit world, whose effects on the mortal realms could have dire consequences if not assuaged. Now Catherine, her cousin Beatrice and her newly discovered half-brother Rory are on the run, hoping to find refuge with the revolutionaries that plan to topple the autocratic regime of the Cold Mages and their Houses across the duchies and city-states that make up Eupora.

Cold Fire (and the trilogy as a whole) has three tightly-woven strands that carry the plot forward: first, the social-political situation that is gradually coming to a head, filled with a range of characters with clashing agendas that aren’t adverse to backstabbing and deception to get what they what. You’ll have to pay close attention to these parts, as it can be difficult to keep track of everyone’s motivation and goals. Second is Cat’s discovery of her parentage, for after she is flung into the spirit world she is forced to meet her father, the Master of the Wild Hunt. A formidable figure that she loathes on sight, he coerces her to a terrible ultimatum: to find a powerful magic-user to sacrifice to the Hunt on Hallow’s Night, or else her beloved cousin Beatrice will be the chosen victim. Finally there is Cat’s personal journey of love and romance when she is thrown together once more with her husband Andevai (or Vai) and made to confront her conflicting feelings for him.

Admittedly Cold Fire didn’t grab me quite as much as its predecessor. Whilst that was a wild roller-coaster ride that never seemed to slow down for a second, Cold Fire moves more in fits and starts: long stretches of Cat biding her time and getting the lay of the land, followed by short snippets of intense action and suspense. Worse, two of my favourite characters are missing for most of the book’s duration: Beatrice and Rory. I found Cat’s “exasperated big sister” interaction with them a lot more compelling than the love/hate thing she has going on with Vai, though their complex dynamic is certainly written with a lot more passion and intrigue than other YA literary couples.

Cat once again provides first-person narration for the duration of the book, and her personality flows throughout every word. She is a fully-realized character, one who can run the gamut from noble to base emotions, and is a quintessential survivor in every sense of the word. She’s one of the best and most vivid protagonists I’ve come across in a long while.

Elliott is truly excellent at world-building, and whereas the last book (and the first quarter of this one) is set in a quasi-steampunk Europe, most of the action here takes place in the Caribbean, filled with distinctive customs and creole speech patterns. In her author’s note Elliott writes: “although the world may seem like an attempt to write alternate history, it isn’t true alternate history. It’s more like a fantasia of Earth that might have been had conditions included an extended Ice Age, the intelligent descendants of troodons, nested plans of interleaved worlds, and human access to magical forces that can redirect the normal flow of entropy.”

Here she expands on many of the ideas that were introduced in the first book, including the aforementioned “descendants of troodons” (which are called “trolls” in this world), the terrible salt-sickness that reduces people to mindless zombies, and the inner workings of cold and fire mages. Whereas the last book was very much set in a landscape of ice and snow, Cold Fire is filled with scorching heat and deals with the devastating powers that fire mages wield. Not only a threat to those around them, these mages also provide an opportunity for Vai to shed some of his arrogant persona, pitting him against individuals who are simultaneously his equals and opposites in power.

But it’s Elliott’s delicate prose that really brings the world to life; as she knows just where to add little details or sensory descriptions that make you feel as though you’re on the white beaches or shantytowns of the Antilles alongside Cat, feeling the heat of the sun, the flavor of the fruit, and the liveliness of its people. As well as this, the trilogy still has all the components that I appreciated from the first book: great diversity, distinctive characters, unique atmosphere and strong bonds between its female characters. I’m just a little sad that there’s only one more book left to go!

Spiritwalker — (2010-2013) From one of the genre’s finest writers comes a bold new epic fantasy in which science and magic are locked in a deadly struggle. It is the dawn of a new age… The Industrial Revolution has begun, factories are springing up across the country, and new technologies are transforming in the cities. But the old ways do not die easy. Cat and Bee are part of this revolution. Young women at college, learning of the science that will shape their future and ignorant of the magics that rule their families. But all of that will change when the Cold Mages come for Cat. New dangers lurk around every corner and hidden threats menace her every move. If blood can’t be trusted, who can you trust?

Kate Elliott Spiritwalker 1. Cold Magic 2. Cold FireKate Elliott Spiritwalker 1. Cold Magic 2. Cold Firefantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

    View all posts