The book I dragged off the dusty trade paperback shelf this month was Cold Magic by Kate Elliott, published in 2010. Again, a book I was excited about when I bought it, but just didn’t get around to because it was in print, not digital. (I bought the sequel for my Kindle within minutes of finishing it, by the way.) other than the frustration of no highlighting function, I enjoyed it a lot; I needed a good fantasy read. Why this one? Well, someone on Twitter recommended it during a discussion of forced marriage and marriage of convenience romances, and the differences between those two; this is a forced marriage for sure, and a good example of how that can work well.
Cat, our heroine and first-person narrator, is an orphan being raised by her aunt and uncle in the Barahal family of “traders”; their history of trading information during recent wars has been hard on the family fortunes. Money is tight, and Cat and her cousin Bee are basically charity students at the local school and hangers-on in social circles of the upper class, each with some magical abilities that they mostly keep hidden. Early on the novel (page 82 of 502), Cat is forced to marry a man she’s never met before, who shows up with a contract giving his house marriage right to the oldest girl in Cat’s clan. Her aunt and uncle insist that she’s the one, being a few months older than Bee, and as soon as the ceremony can be completed, she’s whisked away by her new husband.
Andevai is a cold mage; his family is in service to Four Moon House, a cold mage clan, and one “service” they have little choice about is the bearing of bastard children whom the mages will take if they show magic potential. His potential is quite high, making him important to the mansa (head of house), especially since his entire family’s happiness depends on his obedience. He follows the orders to fulfill the marriage contract and bring Cat to Four Moons. There, the mansa quickly discerns that Cat has no Barahal blood; Bee was the intended bride, because of her talent for prophetic dreaming; Andevai is ordered to kill Cat and go marry the right Barahal girl.
Cat runs away; Andevai pursues her, but when he catches her, he can’t bring himself to kill her, so he lets her escape. This makes it hard for Cat to continue hating him, and of course there’s a powerful attraction between them which she refuses to acknowledge. As Cat works to stay alive, save Bee, and figure out who she is if not a Barahal, she keeps encountering her husband, who is putting on a show of hunting her to preserve his family from punishment.
This forced marriage romance takes place within a complex political plot in an intricate world where magic, martial power and technology are battling against each other for supremacy. Cat and Andevai are powerful pawns. I was sucked in quickly by the quality of the world building and the excellent characterization. First person works really well in this book, because the reader learns things along with Cat; there’s no narrative info-dumping, and when my head was spinning trying to follow what was happening, Cat’s head spun too. Her imperfect choices made sense to me, since I shared her limited awareness.
Elliott describes this book as a “mash-up,” “an Afro-Celtic, post-Roman ice punk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons (which were a small, intelligent and agile species of dinosaur).” It was particularly good to read in the midst of the current concerns about weak women and a lack of people of color in science fiction and fantasy, because it suffers from neither of those all-too-common problems. I’m glad I had it on the shelf, and I’m sure I’ll finish the trilogy soon. WIN