Cold Magic by Kate Elliot
Well, let’s just say this on the off; I have finished this book and I have even bought the sequel, Cold Fire. I wouldn’t haven’t done the former neither mind the latter if I didn’t like and enjoy the book.
However, it is not very often that I come across a book and I genuinely don’t know what to make of it. The book isn’t bad, but I have two problems with it; I am an historian and I am also a writer, and those two facets of my life are very strongly linked. Neither of which is exactly the fault of the book nor the author, but it had a massive influence over my impression of the book.
If you don’t know very much about history then this book is actually brilliant and I highly recommend it. It is a very imaginative, full of magic based on coldness and drawings of prophetic dreams, mixed up with a bit of steampunk and one very betrayed young lady who is forced by her own family to marry against her will. There are twists and turns, with a very strong bond between cousins that I hope will get even better in the sequel.
However, I do know quite a lot about history (I have two degrees in the subject) and if you do I still recommend it but it wasn’t until I read the author’s interview at the end that I was able to actually understand what the author had portrayed in her novel. Kate Elliot describes the history of the book as a mash-up of different cultures from across Europe and Africa. It is set in our world, with a completely different timeline, and I mean completely different, but confusingly with similar enough historical and cultural references to set my head completely spinning. The slightly altered place names I just about got my head around.
I’ve not read much fantasy based on alternative timelines from our own but on reading this I have had to make up a new reading rule especially for this type of fiction: forget everything that I think I know about the past. When I read the sequel that is exactly how I’m going to have to think. And that is where the writer in me really starts to protest.
I use my chosen academic speciality quite subtly in a lot in my writing; I use it to help understand how societies grow socially and politically. I use case studies to prove to myself that human beings are capable of reacting to certain situations in the way that I would like them to react in my books. How Kate Elliot has ‘mashed-up’ the history in her book though makes it a confusing read, especially because there is a lack of explanation in her prose to help the reader to understand what is going on and what each different culture represents and means. In a way her writing respects the intelligence of the reader, believing that they would be able to work it out and that quite frankly is to be commended not condemned.
However, the writer in me is frustrated that the research done for the book seems to be based on a cherry picking of history, which has baffled the historian in me and makes the writer in me to wonder why certain decisions were made for the plot that the historian in me doesn’t understand because it goes against the grain of wider historical development that Kate Elliot seemed so dead set about including in her book.
The best example I could possibly use which doesn’t give away any of the plot but helps explain the inner conflict caused is what happened politically after the fall of the Roman Empire in Cold Magic. Firstly in the book the Roman Empire falls at the turn of the first millennium, a decision I can’t understand as the Western Roman Empire fell in the fifth century and the Eastern Roman Empire (known as the Ottoman Empire) fell in the fifteenth. Focusing on Western Europe, politically the empire divided up into very small kingdoms which fought each other, conquered each other and gradually got bigger. In England the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms united under Alfred the Great. Charlemagne made a similar union on a much larger scale across most of continental Western Europe.
This sort of political development is what I would have expected to have happened by the early nineteenth century in Cold Magic, even with the Roman Empire falling much later in the book than it did in our history. It didn’t, it was still split up into tiny political pockets. Considering the book includes a lot of political conflicts including references to a massive war a couple of decades before the book is set, I would have expected in the seven to eight hundred years previously for some of those small pockets of political influence to have swallowed each other up, which doesn’t seem to have happened. I wasn’t expecting for England and France to have been formed considering the different timeline, but I would have expected some similar development.
And this lies at the heart of my problem of the cherry picking of history; yes Cold Magic has many wide ranging and interesting historical and cultural references included, which have been mashed together, but for me I can detect problems in the author’s wider understanding of historical development over the time scale that has been created. I also have a problem with the term ‘mash up’; the writer in me things it should have been blended together.
Saying that I’m a historian and a writer, and these are inner conflicts that surfaced with me as a reader. They won’t necessarily affect you and the book is worth reading. I definitely think it is, because there is nothing I love more than being challenged to think by a book.