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