Here, let me save you some time:
Chapter 1 to 6
Cat misses her dead father, so she reads his expedition journals. Cat is cold because they can’t afford heat in the big, drafty house. She is hungry because she missed breakfast. Cat is cold when she runs to school because she forgot her coat, the one in last season’s style. See Cat’s cousin, Bee, and “best friend” pinch her during lecture. See Bee get Cat into trouble with the school proctor. See Cat risk Big Trouble to help Bee get out of a little scrape. Plus, Cat will miss lunch and she is still hungry. See Bee mock Cat for missing her dead father. See Cat and Bee hide in the library where Bee tells
the reader Cat all about her dead parents. See Cat sacrifice herself for Bee.
Chapter 6 to 14
Cat is symbolically married off to an evil ‘cold mage’ as part of a contract. However, he is very handsome with his cute beard and besides, he’s a very spiffy dresser. Too bad he makes fun of Cat’s clothes! Cat is still hungry, and can’t believe when the mage refuses his fish soup, lamb and chicken dishes, beans, rabbit liver, sweet potato and vegetable stews. How wasteful when Cat is so hungry! Let’s talk about the food some more. Aw, the mage takes pity on Cat and lets her eat some dinner. The house is under attack! They escape out the window and through the city. Cat is still hungry but now is kind of mad. Their carriage is under attack! The coachman, a spirit in disguise, saves them. The mage makes the carriage pull over at a shrine to do something mysterious. Cat is still cold! The driver gives her his coat. The mage makes fun of her clothes again. They stop at a hotel and Cat bonds with the trolls in the front room while the mage hangs with other old dudes.
Interlude: Carol goes to bed because this awful writing is giving her a headache.
Unfortunately for Elliot, I read the 2012 5 book edition of The Lyra Novels by Patricia Wrede shortly before starting Cold Magic. In the introduction, Wrede shares how she was afraid to workshop her first published book, Shadow Magic, with her writing workgroup after it had been accepted for publication. In this new edition, she was able to go back and re-work it. The first chapter of the original book was included, and she showed exactly what was cut, reworded and why. I wouldn’t have hated the first version by any means; it was competent and familiar. However, her edits demonstrated how slightly changing narrative and deleting extraneous details could focus the story.
All I could think when I first started reading Cold Magic is how much Elliot could have used Wrede’s writing group. The first six chapters are essentially large swaths of setting that have nothing to do with plot advancement. To add insult, many of the infodumps are structured as dialogue between Bee and Cat in astonishingly awkward conversation. Although they’ve been living together for years, in one section Bee says to Cat: “People must eat. That’s why your parents came to live with the family in Adurnam, isn’t it? What else could they do? Your father had to go to work again for the family. Yet his heart wasn’t in it. He fought with everyone. The reports he prepared were useless. He did not want to leave your mother and you alone, and your mother could not travel with him into those regions…” Even more distressingly, that particular chunk takes place on page 63. As in, not during the introduction. But don’t worry: Elliot does it in the beginning pages as well.
Characterization feels sadly unoriginal. Cat is the orphan, alienated by fickle disposition and excessive brains. Bee is the beautiful one everyone adores. Even more disappointingly, during the first half of the book Cat and Bee’s relationship is sadly dysfunctional although Cat tells us all the time how she and Bee would do ‘anything’ for each other. I don’t know yet if Elliot was doing it on purpose, but it’s pretty apparent the relationship is one way. If Bee was a man, we’d call her ‘an exploitative ass.’ Actually, I’d call her that either way. Certainly with all the pinching, mocking, entreating, condescending and lecturing, it qualifies. I’m generally against the martyr protag, and Cat’s longing to be with her best friend and compadre Bee just smacked of idiocy.
Character motivation annoys. I confess, I’m predisposed to hate the “daddy’s little girl” absentee-father syndrome. Cat admires her father, misses him, risks punishment as part of getting closer to him through reading his journals, yada, yada, yada. She doesn’t sounds like a majority age protagonist. She sounds like every young book orphan ever, trying to discover her heritage. I found myself vaguely interested in the father, but it was wrapped in so much emotional angst, I wasn’t able to read in any detail before my eyes started glazing over. Cat is childish in other ways as well. It isn’t noticeable at first, because I attributed it to writer affectation, but Cat rarely refers to people by name, only by relationship to her or their position. Thus “the nanny,” “Cook,” “the governess,” “the maestra,” “the coachman,” etc. Either it’s Elliot trying to keep her writing ‘interesting’ by varying jobs with given names and titles, or Cat’s a self-centered twit. Could be either. I’m annoyed by both.
Plot-wise, there’s a whole bunch of other random bits about how Romans didn’t conquer the Iberian peninsula (I think; frankly, the historical lectures were especially tedious), some vague stuff about the working class starting to rebel against the ruling class (which seems to be cold mages and seems vaguely related to industrialization), trans-ocean dirigibles, and a trip through Fairyland, where Cat discovers she is a Speshul Snowflake. Really. (Oh, and her other special skill of expert fencer is revealed). In a Q&A on Goodreads, Elliot mentions she threw in most of the ideas she was interested in/could fit in, and it shows. Believe me, it shows. Except it turns out quite a bit like Greyfriar, only with mages instead of vampires. Or vice versa; I can’t be bothered to check dates. They are both annoying pastiches based on the whole Victorian ladies and unsuitable relationships plotting.
Lastly, not to be a complete meanie, but the writing is clunky. My first cringe was on page 4:
“Uncle’s exasperation was as sharp as a fire being extinguished by a blast of damp wind, but my curiosity was aflame.“
I think I sprained something trying to work out that image.
Why not one star? I found the trip through fairyland interesting, even if it was rather traditional. I didn’t hate it enough to completely stop, or to throw it across the room. I appreciated Elliot’s attempt to be sort of multi-culti, and if she suffered from Overly Plucky Heroine, it was a vaguely interesting setting. I was puzzled by the trolls that appeared in the inn (who seemed birdlike with their feathered crests) and found myself hoping for more about the magic system. So points for inspiring reader curiosity. But overall, it felt strangely like a first novel, badly in need of a writing group.