On the Same Page: Cold Magic

A lot of what I have to say about this book is in my review from the September TBR Challenge. I thought the world building was strong, and the story is complex enough to sustain a pretty hefty fantasy trilogy. That’s what strikes me, thinking back on this reading experience — because this is fantasy, there’s a whole world of plot that isn’t directly about the romance, and consequently, the romance aspect is drawn out and given time to develop in a way that wouldn’t work in genre romance.

Cat and Vai start off very much on the wrong foot, They are forced into marriage, they don’t know each other at all beforehand, and before they have a chance to figure anything out, the marriage is termed a “mistake” and he’s ordered to kill her. Which he can’t, of course, because he is already falling in love with her. No surprise that she is suspicious, dismissive, prickly and so forth — she’s not playing hard to get or over-reacting, because the man married her at the command of the same lord who has now commanded her death. Of course she doesn’t trust him, even if she does find him attractive, and of course she’s glad to see him frustrated, humiliated, or thwarted. I was glad that it took her the better part of three long books to completely trust him — anything faster would have belied important aspects of her character.

Aside from not immediately falling for Vai out of suspicion and fully justified fear, Cat has other issues that she needs to resolve before she can believably love and commit to anyone. She has fundamental identity issues — who is she, who were her parents, how did she end up in the Barahal household? What about her magic power(s) — where do those come from, and of what is she capable? In addition to figuring all of that out, she has a concern that takes priority over a potential romantic relationship. She knows that her beloved cousin Bee is the next target for the cold mage, and she doesn’t want to see that happen; after staying alive herself, her next priority is Bee’s safety and welfare. She has a lot to figure out, she has herself and her cousin to keep alive and safe, and she has very little reason to trust Vai to help with any of it.

More than anything (the secondary characters, who are fabulous, the world building, which is rich and rewarding, the use of history and myth to make a mash-up that feels familiar, new and consistent all at once), it was this aspect of the novel (and eventually the trilogy) that I found most rewarding. The romance had time in which to develop, the two characters went through a lot for and with each other to prove how strong their feelings were, and there was so much going on that I didn’t feel that anything was dragged out or put off in a frustrating way. In other words, reading this reminded me why fantasy with strong romance is still my favorite genre.

So what did others think? What did and didn’t you enjoy about this novel? What aspects do you think deserve deeper analysis? Comment here, or link to your thoughts posted elsewhere.


16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. merriank
    Nov 02, 2013 @ 14:56:32

    I’ve only read the first two books so you are enthusing me to read the final volume.


  2. Erin Satie
    Nov 02, 2013 @ 15:02:46

    One thing that struck me immediately & with great delight is that Vai is one of the very few characters I’ve run across in fiction that captures the essence of Austen’s Darcy.

    I’m not usually a Darcy fanatic. I don’t run from book to book hunting for Darcy. But there were so many moments in COLD MAGIC–the dinner scene after he first takes Cat away, in particular, where Vai is struggling to assert his position and in the process he deeply offends Cat–where he was that exact mix of correct, suppressed, clod-footed and earnest.

    I know a lot of people find COLD MAGIC slow, but it sucked me in right off the bat and I loved reading it.


  3. sonomalass
    Nov 02, 2013 @ 15:13:00

    I did see some comments about it starting slowly, but it wasn’t that way for me at all. As I said in the earlier review, I think this is a case where first-person really works well. It made me intrigued to learn more about Cat right away, and it worked to delay my decision as a reader that she and Vai belonged together.

    I think not being in Vai’s head helps with the Darcy thing (great comparison!). I enjoyed getting to know him more slowly, at the same time that Cat did, without that feeling I so often get in third person head-hopping romance of “what’s taking her so long to realize that he’s wonderful?”


  4. Jorrie Spencer
    Nov 02, 2013 @ 15:26:00

    There is so much to admire in these books. Elliott is a terrific world builder, and not just in terms of getting details right, but in setting the story so it could be nowhere else. I loved loved loved the multicultural world, with people of color playing starring roles in this book.

    From what I’ve read, it appears Elliott has paid close attention to the cultures she has used as springboards for her world. And I love the initial setup, forced marriage. (Not only that, I found it a fresh twist, if rightly disturbing, that Cat was sacrificed by her aunt and uncle to save their daughter Bee from this forced marriage.) And I love that Cat and Bee’s bond became even stronger because of this betrayal. And beyond that! That Andevai, who forced Cat into marrying him, was in turn coerced.

    I struggled a bit more with books 2 and 3, even while I admired them. I got a bit stuck on the way the Roman Legate, Amadou Barry, was handled. He was perfect in Cold Magic. Posing as a student, he’s shown to be more than that from early in the book, so when he arrives at the end to save Cat from a cold mage, it’s quite a delightful revelation, and he’s competent and effective and kind. And, yes, in part he does it because he’s infatuated with Bee. But then in Cold Fire and Cold Steel, he becomes this idiot who is disturbingly obsessed with Bee and…well, I won’t say more for spoilers for the rest of the trilogy. But I ended up a bit disgruntled about it all, I have to say!

    That doesn’t mean anyone else read it that way, of course. But I guess some of the story choices further into the series didn’t work as well for me, personally.

    That doesn’t mean I won’t be reading more of Elliott. I just adored her Crossroads trilogy and I’m really excited she’s writing more in that world. Plus I intend to read some of her older series as well. She’s a fantasy writer who really interests me.


    • sonomalass
      Nov 02, 2013 @ 15:58:26

      One thing I admire is how many of her characters are neither all bad nor all good. Cat’s father, the head of Four Moon house, most of the “bad guys” turn out to have a disturbingly human side, too. With Amadou, I thought she was going the opposite way — that a seemingly heroic character, a possible love interest. could turn out to be a dick after all. It worked for me, especially as a way of highlighting how Bee’s eventual romantic choice made sense. But I can see how it might come across as heavy handed. too.


    • sonomalass
      Nov 02, 2013 @ 21:13:06

      Liz’s comment reminded me that I owe you a big thanks for mentioning this book in that Twitter conversation about forced marriage versus marriage of convenience. Otherwise, who knows when I would have gotten around to reading it?!


  5. Marijana
    Nov 02, 2013 @ 16:14:53

    I’m nearly finished Cold Fire. Although it took me much longer to get in to than Cold Magic, I am enjoying the complexity of it. The development of Cat and Vai’s relationship is fantastic in Cold Fire. It builds in a realistic way. Cat’s knowledge of being a pawn in a much larger game. and her rebellion against it is interesting to read. In Cold Magic the revelation is, in some ways, debilitating to her, and she makes unwise choices. In Cold Fire she is coming in to her independence and is starting to take control (as much as she can).

    I love how Elliott’s focus is on relationships and the many different types that exist. Bee and Cat as sisters. Cat and Vai as potential lovers. Cat and her mother. Cat and her adoptive father. Cat and Nate. Vai and Kofi. Vai and the Mansa. The general. They are all so interesting and important to character development.

    The way Elliott weaves in misconceptions and preconceptions, e.g. Phonecian women being ‘easy’, is an excellent reflection on society. Even the way she makes us question right and wrong. Things are not always black and white. Is Camjiata wrong for wanting a revolution?

    The issue of trust is a big one. The way Cat implicitly trusts Bee is understandable but there were times when I thought, wouldn’t you question it at this point? Her trusting her brother from the get-go. Why? The trust issues between Vai and Cat. Bee trusting Camjiata and his decisions for her. Trusting the trolls and Brennan. I know this all ties in with relationships but at times it seems that trust is used to push the plot along. And that the different levels of trust applied to different characters don’t always make sense.

    And of course, the multicultural world adds a level of complexity to the trilogy. That POC dominate this series is excellent and should indicate to publishers that readers do want more diversity. I do wonder whether readers are more willing to accept diversity in fantasy than romance. Does the ‘fantasy’ aspect of romance (that was recently written about on blogs) make it harder to accept a more diverse character base?


  6. Marijana
    Nov 02, 2013 @ 17:37:29

    I’ve been thinking about the comparison of Vai to Darcy; it didn’t work that way for me. Darcy’s pride and arrogance comes from his position is society. A position that will never be questioned because it is fact. Vai’s pride and arrogance are a mask. Ones he uses as a defence against his heritage; the preconceptions that heritage brings to those born ‘higher’ than him. He has said that when he joined the Mansa’s house he needed to protect himself. The way he is fastidious about his dress also indicates a type of protection. In Cold Fire when he is with Kofi, he doesn’t need these defences and doesn’t wear the clothes or pride.

    That’s not say that he is only using these as a mask, because I’m sure they’ve rubbed off on him over the years. Only that the Vai we see in the village with his peers and at Aunt Djenela’s (?) is very different from the Vai we see in front of the Mansa, Camjiata etc… People he feels he must prove himself to.


    • sonomalass
      Nov 02, 2013 @ 18:16:31

      I think Vai has internalized a lot of the characteristics of his mask, though. Cat spends some time dealing with those as they work through their relationship. The clothes are the most obvious symbol of it; he doesn’t give those up in the later books, either.


      • mo
        Nov 02, 2013 @ 19:06:47

        Yes, I agree. My point is these characteristics have come from a different place. Darcy’s pride etc. are because of his position; Andevai’s in spite of it.

  7. sonomalass
    Nov 02, 2013 @ 18:18:39

    I do love that the dominant/default skin color in these books isn’t white, and that the diversity of the culture is just a given, not something anyone bothers to comment on.


  8. Liz Mc2
    Nov 02, 2013 @ 19:57:13

    I thought the world-building was really interesting too–especially as I had just finished a biography of Alex Dumas (the novelist’s father), much of which is occupied with his military service during the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. Camjiata was a really interesting version of Napoleon, especially the different perspective we get on him at the end (I have only read the first book and am waiting for my library hold on Cold Fire to come in). In the back of my copy was an author’s note explaining that the world-building came first, as a game she played with her children and their friends, and I thought that “showed” in the sense that the novel felt driven by the world, the characters and plot shaped by it. At first it seemed sort of episodic or picaresque, though everything came together in the end. I can see why people found it slow but I enjoyed the slow unfolding of the world and the relationships and like you I thought it reflected Cat’s story. She’s still pretty in the dark at the end of the first book. I agree with what people are saying in how effective the point of view is, both in understanding Cat’s choices and confusion and in the way it makes the relationship with Andevai work.

    I also saw some reviews saying–as criticism–that it is “really YA but marketed as adult” which I found interesting. I don’t read a ton of fantasy, but “young person coming into powers/going on a quest” seems pretty common. I thought that people were responding to the fact that this is a first-person story with a young female protagonist, and in part about finding one’s identity, (and with a romantic subplot) and wondered if it would have got the same comments if it had been 3rd person omniscient or from Andevai’s POV. Bet not. Although I’ve read YA fantasy with this kind of politically and culturally complex world (Cashore or Megan Whalen Turner, say) I think some of those reviewers were kind of dismissing those elements of the novel in categorizing it as YA.

    I really enjoyed this and the discussion here, and am looking forward to the next one. If not for that “forced marriage” Twitter conversation I probably wouldn’t have picked this up, so thanks to you and Jorrie for that!


  9. sonomalass
    Nov 02, 2013 @ 21:11:34

    I have a hard time classifying this as YA; the first book, maybe, but not the whole trilogy. I agree that the first-person young woman narrator is probably what triggered that. But that’s like saying that The Sword in the Stone is YA, as if you could put it in a separate genre from the other books.

    I read the author’s note too, and her characterization of this as “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).” That sense of playfully combining familiar elements into a whole new world made the book a lot of fun to read, at least for me.


  10. Jorrie Spencer
    Nov 03, 2013 @ 13:47:58

    I’m just so pleased you’re hosting this discussion and getting others to read Cold Magic! I actually think it does some important things you don’t always get to see in sff/romance.


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