Kate Elliott began her Spiritwalker trilogy in 2010, with Cold Magic. Cold Fire followed in 2011, and now Cold Steel has arrived to crown the ensemble. Elliott’s métier is epic fantasy, and her fantastic alternate Earth—from its glacier-shadowed Europa to the Taino-ruled Caribbean and the revolutionary free city of Expedition, and to the realm of the spirit world as well—is built with great consistency and complexity.
We see this world through the first-person narration of Catherine (“Cat”) Bell Barahel, daughter of the Master of the Wild Hunt and a female soldier (an “Amazon”) in the army of Camjiata, the so-called Iberian Monster. Her cousin and foster-sister Beatrice (“Bee”) Hassi Barahel is a seer who “walks the dreams of dragons,” and people want to control her in order to make use of her visions. Her half-brother Rory is a shapeshifting giant cat. When the novel opens, Cat is still in the city of Expedition. Her husband, the cold mage Andevai Diarisso Haranwy, has been abducted by her father for nefarious purposes. And Bee’s husband, Prince Caonobo, is bringing her to court to stand trial for the murder of his mother, the former Taino queen, or cacica, Anacaona.
And Camjiata, exiled from Europa years ago, is in Expedition, about to set sail for Iberia to restart his war to overthrow the old order, with the unscrupulous fire mage James Drake—who nurses a burning hatred for Andevai—in his train.
Cat is determined to rescue her husband. To do that, she must return to Europa—which she does, after some travails, through the spirit world, accompanied by Bee, Rory, and a talking skull holding the spirit of the cacica Anacaona. But her problems are only just beginning. Europa, divided by Camjiata’s invasion, the status quo of the privileged threatened by revolutionary movements, isn’t a safe place for a wanted trio. Separated from Bee and Rory, Cat finds her way to Andevai’s prison in the spirit world. But, having freed him from one kind of durance vile, she can’t keep him free of the cold mage House that raised him from peonage, trained him, and refuses to relinquish the power his cold magic represents. Andevai is a vain, complicated man, and though he loves Cat and she him, that alone is not enough to conquer all difficulties. Andevai’s mother and sisters and his own sense of duty are held hostage against him, and Cat eventually finds herself marching with Camjiata’s army, while Andevai is ranged among Camjiata’s enemies.
In the end, Cat finds herself calling upon her father, Master of the Wild Hunt, in a final bid to save Andevai and his cold mages from James Drake—and offering her own life in exchange.
The pacing, as in any 600-page novel, feels uneven at times. But in a sprawling epic which takes as its themes love, war, revolution, and people’s right to self-determination, to freedom and dignity and autonomy, a little unevenness of pace is only to be expected. Cold Steel—indeed, the whole Spiritwalker trilogy—is one of a handful of epic fantasy novels that treats social change and social revolution thoughtfully, understanding the nature of a paradigm shift away from privilege (privilegium, private law) towards common law and equality before the law. Roman rei vindicatio is important not only in Europa, but in the spirit world, when Cat invokes it to claim possession of herself in the face of the blood-hungry powers of that realm.
Trolls. Dragons. (Dragons! Trolls!) There are battles and excellent action scenes and quiet tension and having the thing you most desired used against you. Daring rescues and rousing speeches, manipulative generals and complicated aristocrats and dashing—and not-so-dashing—revolutionaries.
Really, it’s everything I could want in a book, and my big problem is that I want more of it more intensely. Not a longer book, but a sharper one: for all its Cool Shit ™, I’m left with the feeling that Elliott has backed off from jabbing the point of her knife in the most effective places…
But not everyone enjoys being stabbed, and I do appreciate a happy ending, too. Go forth and read it: I suspect you’ll have fun.