The real review is here! Some of you who liked my pre-release comments might want to retract: no offense taken, I promise.
This is a 3.5-star book, rounded up because Goodreads still doesn't have half-stars. [b:Cold Magic|7114825|Cold Magic (The Spiritwalker Trilogy, #1)|Kate Elliott|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1323994929s/7114825.jpg|7374960] is still my favorite of the trilogy, but I do think this one works better than [b:Cold Fire|9347801|Cold Fire (The Spiritwalker Trilogy, #2)|Kate Elliott|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1318180674s/9347801.jpg|15381265].
Like the first two books in this trilogy, Cold Steel gets off to a rocky start: it begins with a dream sequence (!) and the first 100 pages feel a bit frantic and disjointed, as the protagonists hurry back to Europa to get into position for the final installment. Once the plot finds it feet, though, it's good fun, with all the daring escapes, rescues, battles, love scenes, shifting allegiances and political upheaval that one could hope for. The downside is that there's perhaps too much packed into its 600 pages: while I don't think of this trilogy as YA, the pacing here is exactly what I wanted as a teen, each new twist raised and resolved within a couple of chapters. But as an adult, whether because of the instant gratification or because the tone is fairly uniform, I found it difficult to get invested: the book would be on to a new situation before emotions had time to develop.
The best thing about this book, and the reason I wish I could have loved it, is its thoughtfulness. Its progressive, feminist ethos informs every aspect of the story, keeping it fresh where it might otherwise have been just another fantasy adventure. If you've been looking for an epic fantasy series that's about changing the world rather than maintaining the status quo, this is it. But it's no good-vs-evil story: even within the ranks of those who want to upend the caste system, there are divisions and it's unclear who's in the right. I especially appreciated Elliott's leaving the political situation unresolved: because progress doesn't end, nor does it reach a point where all major obstacles are overcome.
Meanwhile, it's always a relief to read a fantasy book whose author has clearly thought about her representation of people, through, for instance, having a mostly non-white cast and positive portrayals of women in all walks of life. Cat and Bee both come into their own in this installment, and there's a host of other strong women as well; I would have liked to see some of them developed more, but what's notable is that the book portrays a wide variety of women worthy of respect, rather than one "exceptional" girl (just like real life). Cat's strength comes from both her ability to handle herself in a fight and her success in more traditionally feminine roles (I especially liked her bonding with Andevai's mother and little sisters). Relationships are also handled in interesting ways: Bee discovers sex and makes the most of it--which surprised me, though it shouldn't have--while Cat and Andevai have to figure out how to make their marriage work despite sometimes-conflicting goals and loyalties.
But ultimately this is entertainment reading. And it did mostly entertain. It has its weaknesses, such as enemies and powerful figures who seem rather too willing to engage with Cat and Bee on their terms, and some dialogue that sounds more declamatory than natural. But it also has plenty of strengths: characters seem like genuine products of their culture and families, for a fast-paced set of books the characters and their relationships are well-developed, and there are moments of real humor. The alternate Earth is fully imagined, with cultures that feel real and complex, and the first book's tendency toward awkward exposition is thankfully reduced here. I even enjoyed the spirit world (an element of fantasy books for which I generally have little patience), which creates a powerful mood but remains mysterious, without bogging down the story.
So in the end I'm rounding up in spite of the fact that, for me, this book skimmed the surface emotionally, because I found much to appreciate here and would like to see more books along this line. For those who have read the first two books, this one provides a satisfying conclusion, and I would recommend this trilogy to those looking for something different in fantasy.
My pre-release comments:
I am in love with this cover!
Good lord, why would anyone give a book 1-2 stars before it's even published?? If you're so convinced it's going to suck, find something else to read. I'm tempted to give a high rating to counteract this, but I don't believe in rating books before reading them.