(review by Aliette de Bodard)
Composed of Cold Magic, Cold Fire and Cold Steel. Set in an alternate version of Europe where Carthage never fell; where a sheet of ice covers everything north of England and Belgium; and where the Taino Empire still rules in the Caribbean, Kate Elliott’s most recent trilogy is a thing of beauty. It’s a very tightly focused fantasy: the narrator if Catherine (Cat) Hassi Barahal, born into a family of Phoenicians couriers and spies–who finds herself, quite unexpectedly, married to a cold mage from one of the most powerful Houses in Europe, and thurst in the midst of intrigues both political and supernatural.
In the world of Spiritwalker, magic comes in two flavours: cold mages can spread a cold strong enough to douse fires and shatter steel; whereas fire mages channel flames and conflagrations, often to disastrous results. But magic users must take care not to become too powerful; for once a night on Hallow’s Eve, the Wild Hunt comes from the spirit world, and kills and dismembers a powerful magic user. The cold mages are thus powerful, but not overly so; and they govern Europe in a loose alliance with the princes who wield temporal power. But radicals are agitating for equal rights, and the infamous general Camjiata (this storyline’s version of Napoleon), has recently come back from his exile and is busy raising another army to conquer Europe… Cat and her beloved cousin Beatrice (Bee), who both find they have more abilities than they suspect, flee as every faction attempts to lay hands on them and use them for their own purposes.
It’s hard to do justice to the worldbuilding in this: one of Kate Elliott’s great strengths is her ability to create a universe that truly feels lived in–that gives you the impression that it doesn’t solely exist for the plot, and that everyone and everything has an existence that goes beyond the narration of the trilogy. The magical system is also fantastic (magic based on thermodynamics! Entropy between the spirit world and the mortal world!). And the characters really shine: from impulsive and kind-hearted Cat to theatrical and pragmatic Bee; from the arrogant and magnificent cold mage Andevai to the canny and manipulative Camjiata, they all leap off the page–you might not always agree with what they do, but they’re all thoughtfully depicted; and I really loved that the story went unexpected places, and explored issues of consent, equality and power, and how revolutions might or might not be the best way to grant these. And special props to the Master of the Wild Hunt, who’s in a class of his own for manipulative bastard. Also, the salt plague is one of the awesomest, most refreshing ways of doing zombies in speculative fiction ever (and I say this as someone who’s a bit burnt on the subject of zombies).
There’s a few extras, too: The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal features Bee’s POV, and lovely art by Hugo Award winner Julie Dillon; and “The Courtship” takes up the story a few days after the end of Cold Steel from the POV of another character.
Highly recommended, in case you had doubts.