Thou art all ice June 10, 2011Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
Tags: books, cold magic, fangirl, fantasy novels, kate elliott, reviews
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.