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Book Review: Cold Magic (Book 1 of the Spiritwalker Trilogy) by Kate Elliott

Updated on June 12, 2012

I was really hesitant to start reading "Cold Magic" (Book 1 of the "Spiritwalker" trilogy) by Kate Elliott. I tried picking up Kate Elliott's "Crown of Stars" series several years ago and felt zero connection with it. I couldn't even bring myself to read more than 50 pages. Since then, no matter how much her "Crossroads" trilogy with its beautiful covers and fantastic storyline beckoned to me, I refused to touch another Kate Elliott book. After scouring the local library for new and interesting books to read, I noticed "Cold Magic" , prominently displayed with other adult fantasy and science fiction books. The cover mesmerized me with the picture of the heroine (or her cousin?) in the forefront, framed with the outline of a gear and machinery in the back along with the phrase "When Science and Magic Collide ΜΆ it is the Innocent who will Die".

I love steampunk - I love the idea of science woven into magic and fantasy. They're such contrasting elements that I can't help but be intrigued. Needless to say, my affinity for steampunk overcame my wariness of Kate Elliott, and I brought the book home. I then proceeded to curl up with a cup of tea, take a deep breath, and plunge into Kate Elliott's self-described "Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons". Immediately, I was hooked. So hooked, in fact, that even as I write this review, I am impatiently tapping my foot, ready to begin reading the second book in the series, "Cold Fire". But I digress. You're more interested in my review.


"Cold Magic" is, at its heart, an alternate historical fantasy based very loosely on Europe (or "Europa") of the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution. The culture is influenced heavily by a mixture of ancient Celtic customs and African magic. Society is split into factions of those who support the current aristocratic supremacy of the magical "Cold Mages" who bring Winter's breath in their wake, and the industrialists, who support technological reform, machinery, and airships designed with ideas brought from Amerike across the Atlantic. Overseeing it all is the indifferent ruling monarchy of princes and aristocrats.

The story begins with the heroine, Cat (short for Catherine), and her cousin Bee (short for Beatrice) as they attend college to learn the workings of science and the wonders of change. As different as their personalities are, they share everything together, and their kinship remains strong throughout the book, even as circumstances strain and challenge their bond, which would likely break if not for their complete faith in each other. The reader discovers early on that both Cat and Bee have their own not-so-human skills and talents that fuel their deep inner strength and give them a rather large capacity for mischief .

Without warning, Cat is torn from the life she's always known and forced to marry a proud and arrogant cold mage to fulfill a contract her aunt and uncle made long ago. As they are chased by rioting common folk and thrust into magical circumstances, Cat discovers that she is not who she always believed herself to be. Her loyalties are challenged and she finds herself lost as she pieces together her past and her identity while meeting a variety of colorful characters along the way. Through all of this, various powerful forces are amassing to find Cat and kill her if they can, but a surviving cat always lands on her feet...

My Thoughts

First and foremost, I love Kate Elliott's prose and her writing style. I love how she paints such vivid and beautiful images with her words without inundating me with too many boring details (as many other fantasy authors often do..*cough* George R. R. Martin *cough*). The pacing of the book is not overly fast, but steady enough that the setting unrolls before my imagination and I understand the characters' feelings and experiences even as I am reading.

Cat is an extremely believable character, and her strength and loyalty is admirable. I understand all of her actions and feelings simply because her story is built up in such a way that I understand who she is as a person. Even Andevai, the sometimes abhorrent cold mage, and sometimes romantic interest, is believable from Cat's eyes as an enemy to be feared who is both frustrating and attractive. Above all, as mentioned previously, the power of the relationship between Cat and Bee emphasizes the theme of loyalty and kinship in the book, even when things are not as they seem.

My only concern with the book is that so many questions are left unanswered. Who is the shadowy character in the beginning who slips into the window? Why the odd inconsistency in Uncle Barahal-Hussein's character? Who is Amadou and what does he have to do with the bigger picture? I can't ask more without spoiling you overly much concerning the story. I'm hoping these questions and more will be answered more thoroughly in the remaining books of the trilogy.


  • Plot: 4/5
  • Characters: 5/5
  • Pacing: 3.5/5
  • Writing style: 5/5
  • Overall: 4.375/5

Would I recommend this book to a friend? Yes, absolutely.

What age group would I recommend this book for? 14 and up - Although younger children would be able to read it (there is nothing inappropriate), they would likely not understand some of the symbolism and historical references in the book.


Overall, Cold Magic was a pleasant surprise for me, especially as I gritted my teeth in the beginning, fearing it would be overly wordy and uninteresting as some of Kate Elliott's previous books have been. I haven't enjoyed an adult epic fantasy book this much since the Kushiel series by Jacqueline Carey. For those who love a good epic fantasy and are looking for a fantastical read, I highly recommend Cold Magic and the Spiritwalker Trilogy by Kate Elliott.


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