When an immensely complicated history strongly affects the present, it can make explaining the present difficult.
For example, if you had to explain to an alien visitor why there’s a certain level of tension between England and Ireland, or the United States and North Korea, you’d have a bit of a difficult time. There’s a history that needs to be explained, a context from the past that needs to be given. Otherwise the circumstances as we know them are hard to understand, especially for a complete outsider. And the best way to understand circumstances that have multiple facets is to examine all possible angles.
What does all this have to do with Kate Elliott’s Cold Magic? Well, one of the best things about this book is the amazingly intricate and complex world it takes place in. In this version of nineteenth century Europe, politics and world events are dominated by two things- the tension between those who practice magic and those who practice science, and the tensions caused by the ancient Punic wars fought between Rome and Carthage centuries before. And in the midst of rising tension as the common people begin to demand their own tribunals similar to those of the ancient Romans, one ancient mage house claims a debt from the Hassi Barahal clan, which has fallen on difficult times ever since an Iberian general failed in his attempt to conquer Europe. The debt is the forced marriage of the oldest daughter of the Hassi Barahal house to one of the cold mages. Catherine, the novel’s narrator, is the one who must undergo this marriage- and deal with the fallout of the rising political and magical unrest.
If you’re feeling a bit lost right now, I really wouldn’t blame you. Because the intricate world is so very intricate, it manages to lose the story inside the complicated politics. Or skimp on some of the history in favor of the forced marriage plotline (which actually isn’t annoying as you might expect). Or the spirit world and the legends surrounding it are tantalizingly dropped in front of the reader and then left alone without nearly enough explanation.
The biggest problem facing this story is that since there is so much going on, characters get lost in the shuffle and storylines get dropped in an effort to develop the characters. What makes this so frustrating is that both the plot and the characters are interesting, and I want to know more about them. But the way that the story is presented leaves everything a tangled mess. I’m not sure why first person narrative was chosen for this particular story, because I think it really hurts our chances to get a better understanding of the world in which Catherine lives. We only get to see the unfolding events through her eyes, and while she’s not a bad narrator, there’s just so much to this world that one twenty-year-old‘s perspective simply isn’t enough. In this world, we need to see perspectives from different ages and viewpoints in order to get a good understanding of it. This world may be Earth, but for all intents and purposes, it’s a fantasy world with a very different system of government and a very different history. Told from only one person’s eyes, the story becomes a conglomerate of infodumps and action, rather than a cohesive whole.
And yet for all my complaints, I really liked reading this book. The characters are engaging, and the world is amazing, especially when the history is given and you can just revel in how different and complicated the history is. Many of the problems this first novel has may be smoothed out by the second book, since the story will already be established and the world can become a backdrop that helps set the tale, rather than something running parallel to the narrative itself. I think that both the world Kate Elliot describes and her characters are great inventions- the question is whether or not she can craft a story that isn’t drowned out by the complexity of her setting. I hope she can- with this world’s version of Napoleon on the rise and increasing unrest in the spirit world, I think there’s a lot of potential for a great plot. I just hope it can be told well enough to make up for the tangled nature of the first volume in this series.