The Spiritwalker Trilogy: Book 1
This book blew me away! It had exactly the right blend of action, character development and worldbuilding to keep me utterly enthralled.
If you’ve hung around me enough, you might have noticed that I don’t care for Europe as a setting (especially unrealistically white Europe). Kate Elliott averts this: her Europe is populated with Celts and West Africans fleeing a plague, and the culture that emerges—a culture where the Roman Empire was fought to a standstill by the Phoenicians, allowing the Celts to take back their land (I love this detail, everyone who knows me well knows I harbour a fairly irrational hatred of the Roman Empire)—is a fantastic tapestry of various cultural beliefs living in relative harmony. Most of the population is mixed race, with a variety of hair types and colours, skin colours, facial features and backgrounds. This refreshing, deeply researched world is an absolute pleasure to spend time in.
The minimal steampunk influence is excellent. There’s an airship, social agitating, the excitement of discovery, mention of a city across the ocean in ‘Amerike’ called Expedition—thrilling and integral, but not overwhelming. I imagine actual steampunk fans may want more, but, eh, this is perfect for me.
Right away, this world pulled me and didn’t let me go. When I realized the main character’s people, the Phoenicians or Kena’ani, were traditionally enemies of the ‘lying Romans’ I got so excited I actually had to stop reading. I needed to just process that delight before I could give the narrative my full attention. Look, everyone I know adores the hell out of the Roman Empire for some reason, and I just feel so validated, ok? VALIDATED.
Our main character is Catherine Hassi Barahal, of the Kena’ani, not yet the age of majority but a loyal daughter of a house that spies and keeps knowledge close. Her fealty to her house, and especially to her beloved cousin Bee with whom she’s very close, is a defining characteristic, as is her cat’s curiosity. She and Bee are thick as thieves, and not averse to breaking rules. They attend college together, learning about combustion and aerodynamics and history, the politics of princes, and the mysterious cold magic the Mage Houses wield.
This book starts with tension, and the tension never lets go. The stakes are only raised, first as Cat sneaks books around her uncle, then as she and Bee get into trouble at college, and beyond. The tension holds throughout. The book moves at a good clip, but doesn’t neglect description and necessary exposition, which are a delight to read.
At times I found Elliott’s prose a little clunky, until I realized that Cat’s voice (the book is written in first person) mirrors the stodginess of Victorian prose without becoming unnecessarily dense. It’s a good way to keep a sense of time in place without replicating the out-of-date style of a 19th century novel. In addition, there are poetic turns of phrase and a boldness in metaphor, which I absolutely delight in. So many modern books so tediously resemble movie scripts. I can picture what things look like in Elliott’s world, and it’s vivid and brought to life. But I don’t want to scare off anyone who likes streamlined prose: Elliott’s not dense, nor is language at the forefront in the same way, say, a Catherynne M. Valente book would be.
Seriously, do yourself a favour and read this book. It’s incredibly difficult to put down, it’s that good. It’s the best new-to-me book I’ve read this year.
Below the cut I’ll talk VERY spoilerifically about what I loved best, and what I wasn’t as keen on.
BEYOND THIS POINT THERE BE SPOILERS
Cat’s emotional journey is hands-down my favourite thing. At the beginning, she’s so loyal to her house, to the Hassi Barahals. Her father’s journals tie her to her father. So that when she finds out, after Andevai has married her and taken her to meet the mansa of Four Moons House, that she has, in fact, no Hassi Barahal blood at all, it’s such a shock. Her confusion and betrayal cannot obliterate her loyalty, but it can challenge it, and I really love that. She’s still passionate about protecting Bee. She holds on to the belief that her Aunt and Uncle love her anyway, even though she’s not really one of them. But she is rightfully angry. When she meets her brother, the sabre-toothed cat Rory, she trusts him less than she would another Hassi Barahal, she isn’t sure of him. Maybe they’re kin, and maybe that’s an obligation written in magic, but she still thinks of Bee as her family, and the Barahals, and she has to work to accept Rory. Not too hard, though, since he’s pretty good at selflessness.
I’m not going to lie—at the very end, when her uncle finally lets Cat read the last journal of her adoptive father, Daniel Hassi Barahal, and he outright states, “How many times must I repeat myself, I wonder … She is my daughter even if not of my breeding. What is breeding, after all, except a moment’s release? Isn’t the raising more important? I will cherish my little cat always.”—I bawled. I needed a box of tissues. That punched me right in the feels, because I was right with Cat, feeling the bereavement of thinking that her father—whose journals taught her and raised her in a very real way—was not in any sense her father. But actually, actually he protected her, and her crippled-but-still-badass mother, and stood up for her. Maybe she has no Hassi Barahal blood, but still she bears the name and the raising, and ultimately that is more important. I love that so much. It is such an important, important message. And how heartbreaking is it, that even dead, he and her mother could still profoundly shape, teach and influence Cat? That right there is incredibly moving literature.
Let’s talk about the female characters for a moment. This book has a great, nuanced female character. Cat herself is a complex individual, and while she has many strengths and advantages, she’s in over her head for most of the book. She has to rely on strength of character to get by, and also she needs sound character judgement. She succeeds in figuring out she can trust the troll and Brennan; she fails when her compassion is moved by Andevai’s sister, who betrays her. I really liked her interaction with Andevai’s sister Kayleigh (although I was disappointed that they couldn’t be Friends) because they have no particular rivalry. When Cat finds out Kayleigh has betrayed her, she understands that it is because of family loyalty. And as a result, Cat, who isn’t pleased, doesn’t begrudge her. That Andevai changes his mind about killing her helps with that.
I really do want to know more about Cat’s mother. Her relationship with her father feels more developed, since, well, he’s the one who wrote the journals. Her mother seems like a strong, interesting woman: a cripple who nevertheless possesses immense strength of character, who is still loved by her husband, who slept with a cat spirit and who gave Cat good advice to protect her: never let on what you can do magically. As she was a soldier in Camjiata’s army, and Camjiata shows up as a plot twist at the end of Cold Magic, I’m sure we’ll learn more about her and Camjiata too in Cold Fire. I look forward to it.
And then there’s Bee, who is not exactly a damsel in distress. I appreciate Cat and Bee’s relationship so much! They are like best friends or sisters. The main problem I had with Cold Magic was the distinct lack of more Cat and Bee together. They’re as feisty as one another, but their strengths are well developed, unique and consistent—and they snark at each other. It’s adorable.
I really liked the djelis! I love djelis. Can we have books all about djelis please? I thought it was super adorable when Cat picked up Andevai’s insistence on correct pronunciation of ‘djeli’ and never even realized it. It’s such a realistic detail. She’s spent enough time with him that she subconsciously picks up on his habits. Fantastic!
Andevai himself I’m not terribly sold on. He’s alright. I’m just… not particularly fussed by him. He’s there, he’s clearly the love interest, presented in a way both outright and subtle. Cat’s attracted to him, but that’s alright, they’re married. She grows to like him in a realistic way, and there’s unresolved sexual tension, and that’s fine. He’s a realistically built character with sensible motives and believable personality tics. I just don’t enjoy him. He’s solid, but not especially interesting.
I also feel the same way about Rory, who much more than Andevai feels like a bit of a one-note character. Since he’s only around in the second half of the book, and like a cat only present in half the scenes, it’s possible there’s more nuance to him that Elliott didn’t have time to show. So far he’s loyal to his sister, he doesn’t understand clothes, he’s very badass and he likes to have sex. Jolly good, ok, what next?
Since this is the first book in a series, I’m willing to give it a bit of a pass in character development, especially since Cat, Bee, and much of the world is fleshed out well, and the book has an incredibly huge scope. If subsequent books don’t expand on the side-characters, I’ll judge it more critically, but for now, I want to see how the story and the characters develop.
As far as the actual plot, I don’t really know what’s going to happen. I don’t entirely understand what ‘walking the dreams of dragons’ means, though I suspect it has something to do with prophecy, far seeing, or affecting the future. I’m interested in what Camjiata intends to do (overthrow the princes and Mage Houses, yes, but more specifically, and this time around, what exactly does he want to do? How does he intend to do it?). I want to learn more about trolls and Expedition. I’m interested to see if the common people rebel— every time revolution was brought up, it was gritty, frightening and made me think of Les Miserables: so much power set against the little people. Will they manage to carve out a new future, away from the feudal system? The greater themes of the book focus on choice, obligation and fealty, and I really want to see how this plays out in subsequent books. In addition, I’d like to see if there are queer characters in this universe, since I don’t think there have been any mentioned?