Saturday, March 3, 2018

Review: Cold Magic, by Kate Elliott

When one hears a book described as "Afro-Celtic icepunk fantasy," it is imperative that one reads said book at some point in time, especially if the description came right out of the authoress' mouth into one's ears directly. And thanks to a kind soul who responded to my Amazon Book Wish List, I have this lovely book in my physical hands. Thank you, book buyer! This review is for you!

Cold Magic is set in the 18th century of a world like ours, but with a radical split in civilizational development. Kate Elliott, however, did not throw in just one bifurcation in history as we understand it: West African groups have moved to the Mediterranean; the Roman Empire still exists, and the Celts of the north have moved down south. This creates a cosmopolitan world recognizable to us by the references to the histories of the Mali and Roman Empires alongside the development of certain technologies we commonly associate with the 19th century, such as rifles and airships. 

Because this is also a fantasy novel (more genre ruminations in a moment), there are also: references to a zombie outbreak that establishes certain ethnic groups in various places, cold mages who can't hang out like regular people because they can literally put out fires with their mere presence, a liminal plane where ghosts and spirits live in conjunction with living world geography, prophetic dreams, trolls (well, large bird-like people with feathers and stuff) and shapeshifters. This is a world in which one can get married with a spell so binding that divorce is just not possible, find a family member in the form of a saber-toothed cat, and walk between the worlds pursued by one's unwanted but dashingly handsome husband, while being embroiled in struggles between various world powers. 

That's the journey we follow Catherine Hassi Barahal on in her first-person narrative. Does it get kind of bonkers? Yes, of course it does, it's a fantasy novel. Cat is an orphan living under her uncle's roof, growing up alongside a beloved cousin, Beatrice, in a house long-reputed to be mercenaries, spies, and couriers. Cat is loyal, smart, curious, occasionally impulsive. She steps up to protect her cousin out of a deep affection that's clear in the teasing that the two trade back and forth. She also has some of those deep-in-denial feelings for her cold mage husband, Andevai. Through Cat's eyes, we're introduced to this changed world that is dominated by African and Celtic influences, a far cry from usual neo-Victorian steampunk, or even faux-European fantasy fare. There are multiple cultural groups within the novel, not even taking into consideration the obvious differences between towns that are a day's travel apart from each other, expressed with different approaches to strangers and guest-rules. 

Categorizing this novel as steampunk, if we are so inclined, means asking questions about genre definition, and the function of that definition. Is this novel steampunk? 

Can we apply that vague general rule "steampunk is what you make of it" to this novel? Probably. It's a useless rule, of course; we use it so we don't get into fights about defining steampunk and letting as many people play in the sandbox as much as possible. 

Does this novel have the hallmarks of what makes a steampunk novel? As I've mentioned in my own Steampunk 101, some 5 years ago now, the core elements of steampunk, unlimited by geography, are technofantasy (or fantastical technology), an alternate world history, and an incipient or ongoing industrial revolution.

A plot point involves the destruction of an airship and its hangar: "Like a bird, it moved in the air without pluging to earth, but it had such an astonishing shape, not like a balloon at all, but rather like a balloon caught at opposite points and drawn out to an ovoid shape. ... A huge basketlike gondola hung beneath, and ... lines were tossed ..." (64). Lectures involving the science of the airship, and students taking down notes with the appropriate amount of technobabble, with Bee demonstrating her attention to lecture, "Bouyed up by a force equal to... gases expand in volume with..." (29) There are rifles, and a climactic scene takes place in a factory. So far, so steampunky.

What, then, of the alternate history? Elliott's worldbuilding is extensive. As I mentioned above, it doesn't have just one event that brings the changes to this 19th century, but several. Paris is still called Lutetia. The Hassi Barahals are offended to be called Phoenicians, insisting on being called Kena'ani instead. Despite the Roman Empire having risen and fallen a long time ago, its presence is still felt in bloodlines and family ties still maintained, such as the Hassi Barahal family with two branches, one in Ardunam (where most of the action takes place) and the other in Havery, intermarrying to strengthen ties between them. In describing her lineage, Cat says, "My mother's people are the Belgae. They lived in the far north... My father wrote that you could see the ice from their villages. The Romans fought them. The mage Houses civilized them" (140) and continues, "My father's lineage came out of Qart Hadast (Carthage) in the north of Africa. His people are Kena'ani sea traders, who in ancient days battled the Romans to a standstill" (141). 

Ethnicity coded in physical features pops up often, driving in the difference of this world from ours. When Cat finally has the presence of mind to ask her new husband for his name, she remarks, "You name yourself in the Roman style .... Yet you are obviously not of Roman descent" (128). Andevai is described as having "a proud face more Afric than Celtic and very handsome eyes" (134) while her shapeshifting brother has "reddish-brown cast of skin" and coal-black straight hair (372). One young man is "milk white," another is "coffee dark" (27) and presumably they're both deliciously handsome. Though descriptions of physical appearance don't crop up often (except for what Andevai wears; Cat is very observant of the various things he wears, because it indicates his struggle to fit into the class he was raised, but not born, into, and also because she is in so much denial about how attractive she finds him), Elliott makes enough of them to indicate the physical diversity of the people inhabiting the world. 

(Of course, knowing some readers, this is likely to be completely lost on them, and they will assume everybody's white, simply because they all have skin.)

There is a great deal of pleasure to be had as a history buff in steampunk for the identification of "Easter eggs"--the bits of historical fact in among the counterfacts, the challenge of teasing out where the histories diverge and tickling our brains with the extrapolations of how history unfolds as a result. That's the draw of the alternate history genre, and Cold Magic fulfills this brief admirably; half the time I felt alienated by the history of the text in such a way that piqued my curiosity further about the originating points that Elliott was trying to diverge from. 

To add further complication to the alternate history are the elements of magic: cold magic is wielded by the mage Houses, purportedly to offset the power of non-magical princes who rule by military might. This power is thought to be linked to lineage and genetics, leading to breeding programs and systemic rape. Creatures from other dimensions interacting with humans for unclear reasons, such as the eru who helps Cat. There are "trolls," based on troodons, because why not have dinosaurs in our epic alternate history fantasy while we're at it.

Empirical science and fantastical magic as we understand it in our world are often opposed to each other--the era of magic gives way to the era of science in many fantasy stories in which modernization is occurring. Similar happens in Cold Magic: the cold mages are opposed to guns and Andevai is sent to destroy an airship early on. (Compare this to, say, Everfair, in which mystical elements are key to working with nuclear power.) Cat and Bee are constantly being menaced by the machinations of cold mages (haha see what I did, nvm) that seem opposed to mechanical technological development, a reflection of the age-old tussle between tradition and modernity.

Industrial revolutions are interesting not just for the ways that new technologies are introduced into a society, but also for the ways that people's bodies and talents are instrumentalized for profit; in the world of Cold Magic and in fantasy worlds generally, these bodies and talents are magical, flukes of nature. Andevai is the result of a rape two generations past by a cold mage seeking to reproduce cold magic through a possible lineage in a breeding program. He is psychologically torn down to keep him in line. Bee's family is forced into a difficult position because of her prophetic powers. These are not the sort of things that crop up in a mass populace. Class differences are addressed in the novel; Cat and Bee are daughters of a poor household, and there is a factory scene, which are circumstances borne out of historical happenings, but they're not the focus of the novel. Maybe this changes in the next two books (buy them for me?). 

I thus hesitate, as a result, to call Cold Magic a steampunk novel, because of this opposition. This theme of magic-versus-technology doesn't force a re-consideration of the development of technology. As a steampunk reader, I am more interested in the ways that technology and tradition meld together into a cohesive whole even as its disparate elements are clearly visible, whether as a patchwork blanket or a well-planned quilt, rather than as opposing forces. That said, as a genre-blending piece, this novel is pretty scintillating in how it plays with its various elements. It has the comfort of my dad's Saturday fried rice, pulling out leftovers from the whole week to throw into the wok, with egg and rice and soy sauce, everything sort of blends in together, and you know you just put chicken and pork into your mouth at the same time but they are no longer disparate flavours, having been transformed by each other. So eat read the thing. Enjoy it for what it is and don't expect exact conformity, which is what we steampunks are used to anyway.

Also, the series is finished, hurray! Kate Elliott's site has a whole list of places where you can buy this book from.

Thanks again to the person who bought me this book!! If you enjoyed this review, please consider dropping me a few bucks for tea or hot chocolate.

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