is set in a world where much of the continents are covered in ice. In many ways it is similar to ours in the Victorian age, on the brink of an industrial revolution. In the cities factories, gas lights and dirigibles are beginning to appear, and the new technologies are taught at the University to young men and women alike. The Cold mages, keepers of the old order, are strongly opposed to these new developments, and claim that they will destroy society.
Catherine "Cat" Hassi Barahal is an orphan. She has been raised alongside her two month younger cousin Beatrice "Bee" since her parents died in a drowning accident when she was six. Her father was an explorer, and her mother a soldier deserting the army of a Napoleon-like general who tried to take over most of the continent of Europa and was imprisoned on a small island for his crimes. Cat loves reading the comprehensive journals he left behind and she dreams of one day exploring the world for herself. One evening, shortly before her twentieth birthday, an imperious Cold Mage shows up on her uncle's doorstep, to collect on a contract made years before. Before Cat can make sense of anything, she finds herself married off to the Mage in a hasty, magically binding ceremony and forced to go with him. Her uncle is given a mysterious parcel in return, and claims the contract has been fulfilled.
Andevai, the Cold Mage, is young and handsome, but also cold, arrogant and aloof, and doesn't exactly seem any happier with the arranged marriage than the deeply confused Cat is. She keeps trying to get information out of him, but he treats her with disdain and silence. Things do not get better once they have to flee in the night, chased by an angry mob after Andevai has blown up the dirigible stationed outside the city. Cat is further confused when the driver and footman of the Cold Mage's coach appear not to be human, but creatures of the spirit world (think like the Fey), call her kin and give her a magical sword of cold steel. Cold steel can sever the soul from a person's body with a mere cut. The sword appears as a cane by day, and while he is clearly a very powerful mage, her new husband doesn't seem to discern the true nature of the weapon.
After several days of travel across an ice-covered country, Cat arrives with her strange, new husband at Four Moons House to meet the head of his Order, and is quickly humiliated when she keeps making mistakes during the series of complicated rituals they have to go through, since Andevai has not deigned to instruct her in anything that will be expected of her. To make matters even worse, the mansa (head mage of the order) declares that Catherine is not the Hassi Barahal daughter that Andevai was sent to marry, she's not a Hassi Barahal at all. The contract was written so the mages would get control of Bee, and Cat's aunt and uncle somehow managed to manipulate the situation so Andevai married her instead. Furious at Andevai's failure, the mansa demands that he rectify the situation by going back to the city to marry Bee instead. Only, as his marriage to Cat is magically sealed, it cannot be dissolved except through the death of one of the parties.
Reeling from the shock that her parents are apparently not who she thought they were, that her relatives that raised her sold her into marriage to save their own child, and that the husband she recently acquired now has to kill her, Cat flees Four Moons House, and is helped to escape by the mysterious servants who drove her there. She finds refuge in the village where Andevai's relatives live. They chose to give her sanctuary for the night, even though they know that sheltering her from the wrath of Four Moons House can have dire consequences. Andevai eventually catches up with her, and they sword fight. Cat is cut on the chin by Andevai's cold steel sword, and her blood spatters on a signpost at the crossroads. She wakes up in the Spirit World, which runs parallel to the normal world (although time passes differently there.) At first she thinks she may be dead, and things just get stranger when a pride of large saber-toothed cats seem to first follow her and then protect her from her pursuing husband. Cold mages gain their powers from the Spirit world, but are powerless within it. This, and other tantalizing things about her true parentage, are among the things Cat learns as she tries to reach the city to save Bee from the Mages.
This really very long summary is only about the first third of the book, and while it took me a while to get into the story and figure out what was going on (which can be really rather tricky when the entire story is told from Cat's POV and she has no idea what's going on either), the story was also fascinating, and the world Kate Elliott has created was incredibly vividly described in every detail. The relationship between Cat and Bee is wonderful, and you understand why Cat would risk her own life to save her cousin, even without understanding why the Mages forced the Hassi Barahal family into the contract in the first place. She is devastated both by her aunt and uncle's betrayal and by the news that the man whose journals she's nearly memorized is not her real father. She feels helpless and rootless and needs to find out the truth to her origins, as well as why the Spirit creatures called her kin. She is strangely attracted to Andevai and can't seem to hate him, even when he's mean and stand-offish and even has to chase her down to kill her so he can force her cousin into marriage. As the story progresses, she grows to understand him further, and understands more of his initial actions. Andevai, too, is forced to reevaluate his situation and position within Four Moons House.
As well as the slowly unraveling mystery of Cat's true identity, the hold the Mages have over the Hassi Barahal family and why they want her cousin Bee, there are also social and political elements to the story. The Napoleon-like general has recently escaped his island prison, and is rumoured to slowly be gathering support again. The technological revolution is approaching, despite the militant opposition of the Cold Mages. They claim that too many technological advances will create unbalance with the Spirit world, and there could be chaos if the industrialization is not halted.
I think what I'm trying to say is that Cold Magic
, the first book in Kate Elliott's Spiritwalker trilogy is very complex, and while for a lot of the book I was confused and had little to no idea of what was going on (maybe because I was reading it really fast), I was also gripped and fascinated, and kept reading more, prompting me to finish it in a mere two days. If the next two books in the series are as good, and answer the questions and resolve the situations set up in this one, then I suspect I will love the book once I read the whole series. As it is, I'm still a bit confused, but absolutely intrigued to read the rest of the series.