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Cold Magic - Kate Elliott My original review:

This is a fun, entertaining book, which I picked up because I thought the setting sounded interesting (Industrial Revolution-inspired alternate-Earth fantasy), and which, once it got going, proved to be such a compelling read that I devoured it in a couple of days when I should have been doing other things. It has its flaws (and a few slow spots, the first 50 or so pages in particular), but enjoyment counts for a lot.

The plot centers on Cat, the narrator, as she's abruptly married off to a stranger in payment for a family debt, then forced to flee for her life across the icy alternate-English countryside. Cat's adventures entertain, and I enjoyed her narrative voice a lot: those who have called the narrative "energetic" are right on the mark, and Cat is original enough a character to be interesting. For that matter, I thought the main characters were well-done generally; they have strong personalities and are individuals rather than stereotypes. It looks like a lot of people disliked the love interest, and he can certainly be unpleasant, but I was so pleased to see a male lead in a fantasy book who isn't a cookie-cutter copy of hundreds of other male leads that I wasn't especially bothered. Their dynamic isn't the most healthy, but it's very human: she's attracted to him although she doesn't especially like him, and he cares for her but has a lot of other priorities that come first. I'm interested to see where this goes and as long as Elliott doesn't water it down with some lame explanation about how all his unpleasant behavior was actually calculated to protect her (which often happens with these sorts of heroes, although it seems unlikely here), I find it good reading.

The worldbuilding did prove to be interesting (in particular because it includes social movements and technological change, both usually absent in fantasy). Its fleshing out is poorly handled though: characters are constantly telling each other basic facts about their world which they all already know, generally in as awkward a manner as possible, and Cat often sticks huge chunks of exposition into the narrative. I wasn't impressed with the way minor characters were handled, either; Cat will meet some new people on the road and we'll have to be introduced to all of them and read through all their small talk, without any idea where this is going or why it's important; then, hundreds of pages later, those same characters will coincidentally reappear at a crucial moment. Not only were certain twists far too neat, but it often felt to me as if Cat (and thus the author) was having a hard time distinguishing the main characters in her story from the extras.

Which may be symptomatic of a larger problem, that this is not by any stretch a standalone book. While there are certainly adventures, ultimately it's all setup for the as-yet-unreleased sequels; it even ends on a cliffhanger. Almost none of the many questions raised are answered and nothing is resolved, and there are plot twists (like the sudden revelation that one of Cat's classmates is actually a Roman Legate) that are utterly meaningless within the context of this book. Even the map is useless for following Cat's journey; it shows all of alt-Europe with major cities marked, but we're left guessing about the location and distance from home of her actual destination, and the geographical regions and markers referred to in the text are invariably not on the map.

I recommend this book if it's your idea of fun, and I intend to read the sequel when it's released. It's no masterpiece, though, and even for the first book in a series, the lack of resolution is striking.

Update (May 2011):

I may have overemphasized this book's flaws when I initally reviewed it. I agree with what I said before, but.... I really like this book. Initially I checked it out of the library, but finally went and bought a copy because I kept wanting to re-read bits. The characters are fantastic and it's a book that rewards re-reads. Whatever it is, this book really hit the spot for me and I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel.