Land of Mist and Snow is an alternate history of the Civil War, focusing on two ships that are controlled by elemental spirits, one ship fighting for the Union, and one for the Confederacy. Thu Union ship, Nicodemus, chases the Confederate Alecto across the Atlantic Ocean, trying to find the key to ending the Alecto’s demonic presence on the water. Key to this discovery are Lt. John Nevis, the Nicodemus’s gunnery officer, and Miss Columbia Abrams, an innocent in the ways of the world, but learned in metaphysics. The story is based on the real life feud between Cornelius Vanderbilt (who funds the Nicodemus) and William Walker (who funds the Alecto), an American who hired an army to make himself president of Nicaragua.
Land of Mist and Snow is a naval adventure novel with an overcoat of magic. The action scenes are well written, and you get a sense of actually being on a ship at sea during a time of war. MacDonald’s many years in the navy are shown here to good use, with appropriate naval terminology and strategies permeating the novel. It’s a fast paced tale with some interesting and intriguing events that aren’t quite explained at the beginning, thus drawing the reader into the tale, trying to determine their significance. However, like Nevis’s constant fear that the powder was going to get wet so that the guns wouldn’t fire, I fear that though all the elements for a good book are here, this tale never quite ignites. There are three main problems:
First, the story is told through multiple first person narrators, in the form of journal entries, letters home, and intercepted dispatches. While the authors successfully establish a distinctive voice for each narrator, there is no suspense about the outcome of a battle when the narrative starts with, “Let me tell you what I went through today…” Secondly, the characters are all flat. There is no development, or any feel that they are in any way affected by the events occurring around them.
Third, the denouement of the novel — the big final action scene — doesn’t involve the ships. We’ve spent the entire novel running around on a big warship, but in the end, its final purpose is just to get the protagonists to where they need to be so there can be a magical battle. This book either needed to have a different ending that utilized the ships, or there needed to be more magic throughout the book to make the ending seem more consistent with the previous action.
Land of Mist and Snow is an uneven story. It can’t quite decide if it wants to be Horatio Hornblower or one of Robin Hobb’s Live Ships. There is some good action, but it lacks the emotional impact or fun characters of the authors’ Mageworld series. If you particularly like naval or military adventure fantasy or alternate histories, it may be worth checking out from the library.