Saturday, February 8, 2014

Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

Cold Magic (Spiritwalker 1)
by Kate Elliott
Orbit, 2010
544 pages

This is a book that gets at the heart of one of the more difficult questions I face when I am thinking and talking and recommending books and writing: what carries a novel? Is it the writing? The plot? The concepts? The characters? Is it all four? Can a book succeed on the strength of one? Can it fall on the weakness of one?

I picked this book as a book club read for my adventurous genre readers, it being a very interesting example (I thought) of that particular niche of fantasy, gaslamp/steampunk. It turns out that it's not quite either, but that's neither here nor there; what it is, concept-wise, is incredibly rich. It's a fantasy set at the time of the Industrial Revolution, or what we would call the Industrial Revolution, in a world where magic is part of the fabric of society, Christianity is just a very minor sect in a large pantheon of religions, and Africa is a wasteland populated by ghouls. Amerike (sic) is populated by a birdlike, friendly, highly intelligent humanoid race called trolls, European society is heavily Roman-influenced one thousand years after the fall of the Empire, and the African diaspora has settled and become part of the fabric of society and culture such that the colour of one's skin is no indicator of heritage and someone of predominantly Celtic culture is as likely to be black as someone of predominantly Mande culture is likely to be white and children of the same parents can have varying colours of skin and hair. In other words, racism, as we know it, isn't an issue here. Magical ability, class, and wealth, on the other hand, are the main drivers of discrimination.

Sounds good so far, doesn't it? The world is incredibly complex. The cultures are carefully thought-out and inspired by a multitude of historical cultures and mythologies. The main characters aren't white, which counts for a fair bit in the world of fantasy fiction. The characters: Cat, or Catherine, and her cousin Bee, or Beatrice are two young women nearing the age of majority, educated and of a venerable, but down-on-its-luck family. They are full of new and dangerous ideas about science and technology, while still navigating their worlds with magic. Cat is an orphan, raised as Bee's sister by her aunt and uncle, and the two girls are absolutely devoted to each other. Even the concept of these characters is awesome.

Here we start to stumble a bit, but let me move on to the plot.

Which gets very bogged down very quickly with that dangerous problem of exposition. When one has a world as cool and complex and alien, but not quite alien enough, as the world of Cold Magic is, one has to explain it. And a good writer can make that happen, almost like magic, but that is not at all what happened here. There are a couple of ways to take on the problem of exposition: infodumping ("as you know, Bob, the general tried to conquer the known world but has been in prison these last thirteen years...") and thrusting the reader right into things and trusting they'll land on their feet (usually my preferred option). Elliott employs a clumsy, poorly-edited combination of the two and this is, depending on your threshold for that fourth component, the writing, disastrous.

I will be honest: I did not think I was going to make it to the end of this book. By the time I hit the ninth chapter I was furious. I had picked this book on the understanding that it was critically well-received (Publisher's Weekly, I am looking at you) and I was appalled at the writing. There were things on every single page that tore me right out of my struggling attempts to enter the world, ranging from awkward sentences to clear copy editing errors to blocks of confusing and seemingly aimless exposition. The prose veered from pedestrian to purple, occasionally laughably so. The text meandered, the dialogue was stilted, the characters unfocused. I was being treated to infodumps and I still had no idea what was going on, and what was worse, I really didn't care.

I was angry because I could see, I could feel, that there was something here. There was a kernel, maybe just the concept of the world or the idea of characters and conflict, of something that could be really interesting. And I felt that Elliott wasn't getting the editing she desperately needed. An editor should have tightened up those first nine chapters, or chopped them completely. Condensed them to one. It felt like the author was wandering vaguely in a forest of awesome worldbuilding and character description exercises and couldn't get her bearings.


Once she gets her bearings, watch out.

I don't think that the writing got appreciably better, and I lost count of the number of times we were treated to the fact that the lying Romans had called the Kena'ani "Phoenicians" and the great city of Qart Hadast "Carthage." A writer with more grace would have let the reader remember those facts on her own. But what did start happening was plot. It was like Elliott suddenly knew exactly what she wanted to do with this interesting world she had built, and the characters marshalled around that, and suddenly I was nearly halfway through the 544 page book and I wanted to know what was going to happen next, because somehow, suddenly, I cared.

As E. M. Forster said, "and then what?" has a lot of power. Add some half-decent characters and some very imaginative trappings, and you have yourself a very readable book.

The problem with a read like this is that I don't quite know what to do with it. I enjoyed myself, in the end. I almost couldn't put the thing down and I definitely didn't want to. I even quite liked Cat, and loved that she was so fiercely protective of herself and her own power; if you're looking for a book with a very strong female character with a lot of agency and determination, you could do a lot worse than this one. It didn't leave me with a glowing impression, but I also wasn't left with that empty, potato-chip-gorged feeling I get when reading something I don't really like just because I have to get to the end. I liked this book and I can still respect myself in the morning.

This book succeeded on the strength of the concepts and eventually the plot, and fell down on the weakness of the writing. Depending on your threshold for each, this is a read you might enjoy, or might hate, and I think you'd be right in either case.


Cecelia said...

Ah! I was firmly in the 'enjoy' camp, but then again I love enormous chunks of untethered worldbuilding (apparently?!). I didn't like book #2 nearly as well, and that has kept me from book #3. *le sigh*

Unknown said...

Ha! Okay, and that would be my question: is it worth trying to make it through book 2? I am trying to figure out if I want to just read *about* how things turn out, rather than read how things turn out for myself. I am certainly very curious.

"Untethered worldbuilding" is a great, great phrase and describes chunks of this book very well. Not a bad thing, but I didn't feel the writing supported it, and was very sad as a consequence.