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Thou art all ice June 10, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
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I thought I would like Kate Elliott’s novel Cold Magic because I’ve adored everything she’s written. I thought I would like it because it was steampunk alternate history where the Little Ice Age was more significant than in our own world, where the Phoenecians were the cultural and political equivalent of the Jews in ours with magic and descendants of dinosaurs and an awesome protagonist and did I mention the DINOSAURS?

But after reading it, I realised that I liked it because it was like Northanger Abbey. [Spoilers for both books follow.]

There is a reason Northanger Abbey is my favourite Jane Austen novel. It is about – and for – girls like me. Like Catherine Morland, I was a teenager ‘in training for a heroine’. It is THE book about girls who read instead of live, and who wish that they could live the kinds of stories they read. And it pokes fun at them mercilessly. And it is hilarious.

In Northanger Abbey, the joke is on Catherine. She thinks she’s living a gothic novel, and the reader knows she isn’t. In Cold Magic, the joke is kind of on everyone.

I’m not going to discuss the (frankly awesome) worldbuilding in Cold Magic because that’s already been done, and better than I could do. Suffice it so say that the alternate world in this book is one where much of northern Europe (and presumably Asia and America) is still covered with ice, Britain is joined to continental Europe, the American continent is populated by the (sentient) descendants of dinosaurs, Carthage was not defeated by Rome and remained a significant power, the African continent is largely abandoned and its people moved to settle in Europe, creating a kind of awesome African-Celtic culture, the Industrial Revolution is dawning, and, oh yeah, magic exists. There are various aristocratic Houses of ‘cold mages’, whose power (and, indeed, mere presence) snuffs out any flames in the vicinity, as well as lowering the temperature of their surroundings. The mages hate and fear the steam-powered new industry and are hated and feared by the non-magical populace. Out of this rather marvellous set up step cousins Cat and Bee Hassi Barahal, who live sheltered lives of genteel poverty, attending classes at the local academy (in, among other things, aeronautical science), sneaking around attempting to learn the secrets of their elders (the Hassi Barahal are, essentially, a family of spies) and, in the case of Bee, admiring various young men from a distance. The two cousins are close friends and love one another deeply. One night, a mysterious stranger, Andevai Diarisso Haranwy, arrives at the Hassi Barahal house to claim a boon: he’s a cold mage, and the eldest Hassi Barahal daughter was promised to his House. He and Cat are hastily married, and she is dragged off into a terrifying adventure with danger at every turn.

At this point, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with Northanger Abbey. Cat isn’t the romantic dreamer of her family: her cousin Bee is. Cat is practical and sensible, self-deprecating and intelligent. She does not appear to have ever been in love or even had a crush before Andevai whisks her off to be his wife.

And it is for precisely this reason that Cold Magic is like Northanger Abbey. I’m going out on a limb here, but I have the feeling that Elliott wrote this book with certain assumptions about her readers. She assumed that most of them were readers of romance novels or at least romantic fantasy novels and were fans of (or at least familiar with) stories where good girls and bad boys fall in love. She assumed that we would read Cat and Andevai in this manner. And then she gleefully toys with our expectations for the remainder of the book.

And although Cat is a reader (and in particular a reader of stories of adventure and discovery) and is filled with curiosity about cold mages before she’s married off, she doesn’t assume she’s living an adventure story (and indeed is annoyed and terrified to discover that she’s doing so). Instead, it’s the book’s readers who assume that they’re reading a particular type of fantasy novel (namely one where adversity transforms a bickering thrown-together-by-accident couple into a pair of loving soulmates) and are amused to discover that something else is going on entirely.

Cold Magic expects its readers to be dangerously genre savvy. It expects us to read two characters (mad, bad, dangerous to know Heathcliff type, and scholarly, bookish courageous Beatrice-from-Much Ado About Nothing type) in a certain way, and draw certain conclusions. And then it makes us laugh at our own geeky bookishness.

There’s nothing cruel about the mockery, though. It’s more like a celebration, a sense of self-deprecating camaraderie, an acknowledgement of shared literary culture. It’s funny precisely because we know this kind of shy-girl-meets-damaged-boy love story is as ridiculous as it is enjoyable, and because we’re a little bit sheepish about enjoying it, but not so sheepish as to deny ourselves to opportunity to read it when it arises.

Northanger Abbey is a story about a girl who thinks she’s living in a gothic novel and isn’t. Cold Magic is a story for people who see certain tropes, think they’re reading a certain type of fantasy novel, and aren’t. The results are hilarious.

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Comments»

1. Kate Elliott - June 11, 2011

I already noted on Twitter that I love this review for many reasons.

This may indeed be the first review that specifically has pointed out that there is in fact no indication Cat has ever been in love or had a crush, even though she obviously admires the good looks of the young men Bee draws.

As a note, in the first partial draft, Beatrice’s name was originally Bianca, but I decided to change it for etymological reasons. Make of that what you will!

So, yes, I did mean to and hope to toy with expectations.

dolorosa12 - June 12, 2011

Thanks! I’m glad you liked my review. (Thanks also for linking to it in various places. That was very kind of you.)

I noticed the thing about Cat after I had finished reading, and saw it as one of the many subversions of the whole ‘innocent girl meets bad boy’ thing, because in romance plots like that, the female character is always virginal and sort of sexless until the right guy comes along.

I think that a commenter on one of your blog posts mentioned Cat/Bee Katerina/ Bianca thing, and I think you ultimately made the right choice in changing Bee’s name, because it leaves things more ambiguous. It’s been a long time since I’ve read The Taming of the Shrew (we had to study it in school when I was 14, but as you can imagine, I haven’t been in any hurry to read it again) so I can’t remember if any of the things Andevai does have any parallels with things that Petruchio does.

2. Kate Elliott - June 13, 2011

No, they don’t really have any parallels (Andevai/Petruchio). I jettisoned that aspect of the plot very very early on, long before I even had a complete first draft. Well, I didn’t really jettison it. The first draft uncovered the “real” Andevai, and the person he turned out to be was so different from my original intentions that I could almost say I subverted myself in the writing of it, for which I am glad.

I’m so impressed by the insight so many readers/bloggers have that I like to link to their reviews so others can enjoy, too. Also, naturally, I suspect writers love reading astute readers getting into the guts of our books.

dolorosa12 - June 13, 2011

The only parallel I could see was the bit where he rejected all the food (thus inadvertently causing Cat to go hungry), which I think happens in The Taming of the Shrew. Of course, Andevai is doing this for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with Cat or his relationship with her.

3. Kate Elliott - June 13, 2011

I love it when readers totally get what I’m doing.

btw, food continues to play an important role in book two.

4. Catie - June 14, 2011

I think I was too excited by that book to have any meaningful thoughts… But I enjoyed your analysis!
“we know this kind of shy-girl-meets-damaged-boy love story is as ridiculous as it is enjoyable, and because we’re a little bit sheepish about enjoying it, but not so sheepish as to deny ourselves to opportunity to read it when it arises”
yes, this 🙂

dolorosa12 - June 14, 2011

I’m glad you liked my review! I remember that you were one of the people who loved this book, and that was a pretty high recommendation in my opinion. I can’t wait for the next one.


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