While I am an avowed fantasy fan, there is a reason that most of my reading tends to stick to contemporary works. Not only do I find it easier to relate to modern characters and settings, but I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of turning the corner and running into the very same fantastical elements that I had just been reading about. Conversely, I’ve never been able to sink into works of epic or high fantasy, quickly becoming frustrated with the plethora of names and factions that seem to contribute in large part to the word count.
Cold Fire by Kate Elliott
While not high fantasy, Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker Trilogy nevertheless has enough density of cultural and political description to qualify it as the sort of work that normally would have me headed for the hills. Yet, having read Cold Magic a few months ago, I was surprised by how eager I was for its follow-up, Cold Fire. Though Elliott doesn’t shy away from long stretches of exposition detailing various aspects of her complicated world, her story never veers into the tedious (and sometimes cheesy) territory that makes me wary of many fantasy works. As readers follow protagonist Cat on her efforts to protect herself, her cousin Bea, and a select few other loved ones from various figures intent on exploiting or eliminating them, it is apparent that Elliott has spent a great deal of time fleshing out her world. While all aspects of the political and magical systems that are a driving force to the story have not yet been explained, Elliott provides readers with enough information to infuse her world with reality. Cat’s journey is sometimes gritty and always believable, no matter if she is standing on the sand in a small village or sheltering from the resonance of a dragon’s dreams in the spirit world.
While I’ve not grown to love Elliott’s characters like old friends as I do the characters of many of my favorite series, I appreciate how Elliott doesn’t shy away from repeatedly highlighting their flaws. I might not always agree with Cat’s choices, but her thought processes feel real to me, and her emotions develop over the course of months rather than as the result of knee-jerk reactions. Likewise, Vai’s motives are not always apparent, and his courses of action are often suspicious, yet his choices seem appropriate or at least understandable given the difficult situations the characters are placed in. Though I was initially disappointed to read what appeared to be the start of yet another love triangle, I am so glad Elliott included it in this installment, for it is one of the only instances I have encountered where the triangle was not merely a plot device. Cat has reasons for behaving the way she does, and she doesn’t abandon those reasons lightly, even when the fallout from her actions appears to be more than she bargained for.
I first heard of the Spiritwalker Trilogy while searching for new steampunk titles. Save for a few references to airships and automatons, there really is not much steampunk in these books, which is unfortunate since I believe that Elliott could make some significant contributions to the genre if she so chose. However, Cold Fire does feature an interesting spin on another supernatural genre (which I won’t mention for fear of spoiling the surprise) that I hope plays a bigger role in the final book next year.
Cold Fire is released in the US on September 26, 2011. Be sure to check out Elliott’s website post-release for an extra scene that takes place during the events of Cold Fire.