I enjoyed Cold Magic, so much so that I preordered this one. The good news is that it’s a fun book and makes for compelling reading. The bad is that the whole book feels like a diversion from the main plot (two books into the trilogy, I’m still not sure what the “main plot” is, actually) and compared to the first book, is a bit lacking in tension and danger.
The good stuff first: the book is well-paced and interesting throughout. The main characters, Cat, Bee and Andevai, remain interesting and get further development. Cat’s voice is still strong--these are books that depend heavily on voice, and pull it off well. For the matter, Cat herself is an engaging and sometimes downright funny character (particularly when drunk, as it turns out). I mostly liked the romance, which is well-written and not cheesy. (On the other hand, the number of reversals and counter-reversals in Cat and Andevai’s relationship make things a bit hectic, depriving events of some of their emotional impact--and Andevai has gotten much more normal, which probably makes him a better love interest but dials down the dramatic tension a fair bit.)
This book moves the action to an alternate Caribbean, where the Taino kingdom, dominated by powerful fire mages, has an uneasy peace with a city-state called Expedition (on the island we call Hispaniola, although for obvious reasons it has a different name here). The worldbuilding is fun and inventive, and it’s nice just to have a setting that hasn’t been done to death. Also, the social movements we saw in alt-Europe in book one are brewing here too, with underground political organizations that bring to mind analogous groups in the real Latin America. But this isn’t one of those fantasy societies that exists solely to further the plot; it’s fully fleshed-out and feels like a real culture, complete with a sports obsession (specifically, batey--an actual Taino game as it turns out).
But, despite all of this.... there’s the plot. Cold Fire starts out on the wrong foot, the first chapter being a rewrite of the last chapter of Cold Magic, with some details added or omitted, and proceeds for the next 150 pages or so with the characters running around--it feels like the end of Cold Magic got dragged out into Cold Fire, long after the climax was past. Cat then encounters her biological father, who gives her a mission which is meant to lend tension to the next section of the book, but that subplot never really gets off the ground and a great opportunity for drama is handily avoided. Cat's sire gives her a mission to find some powerful individual for him to kill on Hallow's Night instead of Bee, implying there's a particular person he's after and he just doesn't know who that person is. Per the Rule of Drama, I assume it's Andevai and that Cat will have to choose between him and Bee--which would have been a fascinating twist, far more so than anything that actually happens in this book. Instead, she periodically thinks about how she has a mission, doesn't do anything about it, and ultimately sics her father on some bit-part character. Lame.
And then we get 200 pages of romance, worldbuilding and batey. This book never failed to be interesting, and yet it barely ever achieved the sense of danger and urgency that Cold Magic had throughout. I attribute this in large part to the lack of antagonists--the mansa is entirely absent from this book except for a distance shot in Chapter 1 (version 2.0), and neither Cat’s sire nor anyone else in this book can hope to equal him. Finally, it’s unclear what any of this has to do with the events of Cold Magic, or what the overall arc of this trilogy even looks like. Cold Fire feels more like a book an author might write after a series is successfully completed, fleshing out tangential events that occurred off-screen in the regular series, than like the middle book of a trilogy.
Despite all that, I will probably still recommend the series (although I prefer Elliott’s Crossroads trilogy). It is a fun series with good characters and an intriguing world, and I’m counting on Cold Steel to bring all of this together in some sensible way.