starlady: (a sad tale's best)
[personal profile] starlady
Elliott, Kate. Cold Magic. New York: Orbit Books, 2010.

While I don't quite consider these books "epic fantasy" according to my own idiosyncratic definition (those doorstop paperbacks, okay, those are just central for me), Elliott has written what may be the most successful epic fantasy sequence by a woman, The Crown of Stars books - but I have been given expert advice not to start there, and anyway "an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy adventure with airships, Phoenician spies, the intelligent descendents of troodons, and a dash of steampunk whose gas lamps can be easily doused by the touch of a powerful cold mage" sounded pretty darn awesome.

And it is PRETTY DARN AWESOME. You can read my review below, or read this awesome tumblr review. Hint: I suggest reading both.

I think Elliott has done some really cool, and really noteworthy, things with this book. First of all, this is a really alternate history, going all the way back to the 200s BCE (in terms of the Rome/Carthage conflict) and back even further, in that the intelligent descendants of troodons live in the Americas and have founded a city in the Antilles with assorted radicals, rabble-rousers, and free-thinkers. BRB SHEDDING TEARS OF JOY.

The plot of the book follows Cat Hassi Barahal, whose family's contractual obligation to the cold mages of Four Moons House throws her into the company of one of their most powerful and proudest scions, one Andevai. Cat soon learns that as well as saving her own skin, she must keep her beloved cousin Bee from the clutches of Four Moons as well. The important point about the plot is that it moves along at a lightning pace and is MADE OF AWESOME. The important point about Cat and Bee is that they are both MADE OF AWESOME, as you would expect from two daughters of a house of spies and mercenaries. And, among other things, I really loved their close relationship and how well they work together as well as how much they love each other. CAT AND BEE FOREVER.

You will have perhaps gathered from my capital letters that I really loved this book. I totally did. For one thing, I stand in admiration of the alternate history Elliott has achieved here, because imperial Rome is one of my scholarly interests, and Elliott gets her alternate history very, very right. The central thing she manages to do--well, she does two very notable things. One is, because Cat and Bee are Phoenician and thanks to their queens two thousand years ago the Romans did not take over the Middle Sea and domesticate it into Mare Nostrum (nor, because of this, did they ever conquer Egypt, though when I see Elliott at Sirens in October I am going to ask her why her world lacked Alexander the Great), they have a very profound anti-Roman skepticism that just doesn't exist in our world. Everyone who wrote anything down missed the Romans after they were gone from western Europe, because the Romans thoroughly transformed the entire Mediterranean--they remain the only people who have ever unified Europe in its entire four thousand years of recorded history--and this is a big part of why, I know, we in general and I in particular are so sentimental about the Romans and their empire: we just don't have any sources to contrast with the upper-class writings that are all that have come down to us from the ancient world. There are hints in books like The Golden Ass that maybe security in the countryside was dicey, and scholars scour the Gospels and Acts for indications of the extent of the Roman presence in rural Judaea, but Judaea was weird (monotheists, LOLWTF) and even the Greeks agreed that the Romans had their uses. But in Elliott's version, alternate views are not only possible but are quite common (Cat's father penned a book called Lies the Romans Told), and there are still Romans around! Actual Romans! I love it, though my own deep sympathies for Rome clashed oddly with Cat's inherited suspicion of them.

The other thing follows from this and is really more like two things. In the first place, it took me a while to realize that one of the biggest divergences in Elliott's book is that there is no large-scale monotheistic religion: no Christianity, and no Islam. Everyone is still cheerfully polytheist, although as befits rational people of the nineteenth century (for those curious about the conversion factor, the book takes place in the equivalent of our 1810 CE) Cat and Bee harbor doubts about whether the gods actually exist. Thus, ancient ideas of kinship, hospitality, and clan structure are still in full force, and they are not the same kinds of ideas that are familiar to us from less alternate Regency novels, and as a historian who does study the period, I do think Elliott gets it largely right. The other thing is that a central ingredient of Elliott's worldbuilding is the collapse of the empire of Mali three hundred years prior and the exodus of Malian refugees to Europe and the Mediterranean to join with Celtic druids to form the mage Houses that are so opposed to progress and science. And, as befits a world with a history that isn't our own, ancient rather than modern ideas of what we think of as "race" are still in force, which makes Elliott's entire cast of characters variously and broadly chromatic - every major character is chromatic, and skin color simply is not a basis on which people are judged except as a mark of ethnic origin. This is also really refreshing, and again, I do think Elliott manages to get the ancient ideas about "race" and "ethnicity" largely right.

The final thing that I adore about this book is the way that it is unabashedly and obviously anti-monarchical and pro-science--shades of Philip Pullman indeed, but this is a rare enough political stance in fantasy that I treasure every instance of it. I've had discussions with several SFF writers about this, one of whom opined that monarchy is the predominant form of government throughout history and therefore monarchism in fantasy isn't a priori objectionable. I disagree, and for that reason I was really glad to see that printing presses and rifles and rights are important elements in the plot (shades of Fly By Night, actually, another of my favorite books). Bring on Cold Fire!

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-30 18:21 (UTC)
juniperphoenix: Fire in the shape of a bird (Default)
From: [personal profile] juniperphoenix
This sounds amazing. *adds to reading list*

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-30 19:59 (UTC)
oracne: turtle (Default)
From: [personal profile] oracne
This is one of the best series I've read lately.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-30 22:02 (UTC)
thistleingrey: (Default)
From: [personal profile] thistleingrey
I've seen some lukewarm reviews of this book and was kind of waiting (given its length!) for someone with a sense of the points-of-change historical basis (bases?) to post about it before deciding whether to put it onto the list. You are it. :) Thank you muchly. I enjoyed Spirit Gate a couple of years ago, but it's the only Elliott book I've read so far (picked up with ± the sense you mentioned in your Inda review), and thus I had little benchmark.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-31 00:13 (UTC)
ninj: (Zenyatta)
From: [personal profile] ninj
I love these books. I didn't enjoy her Crown of Stars books at all. If you like these read her Jaran books. They're not even the same at all, bu they're interesting with a female lead, and female based nomadic society. It was interesting.

Cat was fascinating and so was the alternative history. I like your take on it too.

She's been one of my favorite authors and I look forward to reading your con report about meeting her in the future.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-31 14:40 (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
I liked the first Jaran book, but got bogged down in the continuously expanding political complications of the later books. I like Crown of Stars much more, in no small part for playing with specifically Carolingian Europe, but also for some of the things she does with the structures of high fantasy.

I've been waiting for the third book to come out before starting Cold Fire.

---L.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-31 02:48 (UTC)
boxofdelights: (Default)
From: [personal profile] boxofdelights
The final thing that I adore about this book is the way that it is unabashedly and obviously anti-monarchical and pro-science--shades of Philip Pullman indeed, but this is a rare enough political stance in fantasy that I treasure every instance of it.

That is a very good point. And yes, Fly By Night! And Rosemary Kirstein's The Steerswoman and sequels, maybe? Or no, but maybe I shouldn't talk about why it doesn't belong without a spoiler warning. But I would love to hear about more books that belong on that list.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-31 03:25 (UTC)
cofax7: climbing on an abbey wall  (Default)
From: [personal profile] cofax7
I really enjoy these books, and I'm really looking forward to the final one. However I'm still a bit disappointed that Elliott didn't go back and write the last 4 books of the Crossroads series. Which I think you'd like: the trilogy (Spirit Gate, Shadow Gate, Traitor's Gate) is epic fantasy with great cultures and magic and ethnic diversity, ethical problems and complex societies. The three she did write end with a good sense of closure, so you're not left hanging, but I still want more--it's much better than the Crown of Stars series, to my mind: Elliott really has much better control over her narrative and structure now.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-31 21:28 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] zahrawithaz.livejournal.com
This sounds fascinating, especially the alternative Roman element. The absence of Christianity and Islam sounds like a witty commentary on the old truism that Rome's most lasting legacy is the three Religions of the Book (of course Judaism as we know it wouldn't exist without the Romans, either). I must read it!

The final thing that I adore about this book is the way that it is unabashedly and obviously anti-monarchical and pro-science--shades of Philip Pullman indeed, but this is a rare enough political stance in fantasy that I treasure every instance of it. I've had discussions with several SFF writers about this, one of whom opined that monarchy is the predominant form of government throughout history and therefore monarchism in fantasy isn't a priori objectionable. I disagree

I love your train of thought here. One of my great complaints is that the form of monarchy I most often see in fantasy is (badly) modeled on an idea of medieval kingship that a) couldn't exist without Christianity and b) brings in and at the same time hides from view a lot of Christian norms. Your interlocutor's point about the prevalence of monarchy in history seems beside the point if it's only a very small slice of human experience in Western Europe being presented.

But your point brings out the bigger picture of the conservatism behind the monarchy presumption. Although I do think there are fantasies that depict monarchy that are explicitly anti-monarchial, like Westmark above, and those don't (to me) pose quite the same problem.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-01 05:35 (UTC)
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)
From: [personal profile] holyschist
This REALLY makes me want to read the book, which only sounded vaguely interesting before, but I'm a little confused by

they have a very profound anti-Roman skepticism that just doesn't exist in our world

and your references to sentimentality about the Romans. I mean, yeah, interesting culture, and one whose legacy has deeply permeated a lot of aspects of modern Western culture. But personally, I think they had all kinds of huge obvious problems, and I don't think that stuff gets ignored in modern historical narratives?

As someone who's pretty interested in Roman history--it doesn't seem at all hard to me to find things to be skeptical about: it was a military-expansionist imperial power built on slavery. How can we not be somewhat skeptical?

I dunno, I don't feel any more sympathetic to the Romans than to any other historical culture I wouldn't want to live in, and I could think of many I'd rather live in if I had to pick one.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-01 14:07 (UTC)
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)
From: [personal profile] holyschist
Mmm. My point, however, was that what Roman skepticism there is (and I can think of few entirely anti-Roman scholars) starts in the contemporary era. In our 19thC, unlike Cat's, it simply didn't exist in Europe.

Fair enough.

Rome was not the only slave-holding society that practiced widespread manumission (I'd argue that the American South is more unusual in terms of how it treated slaves than typical), though, and I wouldn't say they stopped expanding because it was wrong so much than because it's only possible to hold so much territory. And there were plenty of non-slave societies.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-01 17:05 (UTC)
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)
From: [personal profile] holyschist
Not sure why they should be praised for not expanding, then--all empires hit a wall or collapse eventually, and the idea that it's not okay to take your neighbor's country just because it exists is a fundamentally modern one.

Your view of Rome is definitely rosier than mine. I don't see that much difference in trends of exploitation of the poor (and when we talk about manumission being relatively common, we're ignoring the vast numbers of slaves laboring on farms and in mines, who generally died young and badly, and had no chance of manumission), and I don't think oppressing women is a better choice than racism, or that ethnic prejudice (which the Romans had) is functionally better, either.

And if Rome had lasted, I seriously doubt we'd be looking at a present more egalitarian and less warlike than now.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-02 02:59 (UTC)
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)
From: [personal profile] holyschist
Didn't say they were paradises! Still enjoy being able to vote, have a job, choose my own marriage, and be relatively safely queer. So the Romans may have been better than us about race, but that might or might not have translated to a net benefit for women of color (although I don't generally like playing that kind of historical comparison game: we're stuck with the time period we're in).

I'm sort of puzzled by the whole concept of "anti-Roman" (or anti-anything) historians: I dont think there's any culture out there that has nothing good or nothing bad in it. I just don't think that, in general, we're quite as prone to romanticizing certain eras as we used to be. At least, I hope we're not.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-01 19:51 (UTC)
epershand: An ampersand (Default)
From: [personal profile] epershand
BRB, moving this book to the top of my "to-read" queue on the basis of this review. It sounds amazing.

Question: I can't remember if you've read John M. Ford's The Dragon Waiting. It's another Roman Empire historical AU (although really it's a Byzantine Empire AU, with the point of divergence being Julian the Apostate) and I strongly suspect I'm going to be reading Cold Magic in contrast with it.

One thing I wound up thinking about in the context of that book, which I suspect will ping for me with this book too, is how much sentimentality for the Roman Empire depends on its being *gone*. When they're still an active presence, no quantity of appreciation for the past will reconcile fifteenth-century France to being called Gaul again, or convince the Medici family to give up ruling Florence without a fight.

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