The Spiritwalker Trilogy, by Kate Elliott
I first read Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy in late 2013. The series stayed in my mind subsequently, so I decided to reread it.
The trilogy consists of three books, Cold Magic, Cold Fire and Cold Steel. They are a fascinating mix of steampunk, romance, fantasy and alternative history. The series is hard to describe succintly, and almost impossible not to spoil, but here goes anyway…
Catherine Hassi Barahal – Cat, to her friends – is a Kena’ani girl living in the city of Adurnam, in the cold north of the continent of Europa. She lives with the people she has been raised to believe are her family – her father and mother drowned when she was very young, and their Kena’ani relatives took them in. Cat spends her days studying at Adurnam’s Academy (which, in a recent liberalising move, has begun accepting young women as students) and affectionately-sparring with her beloved cousing Beatrice (or Bee, for short). So, far so normal.
Cat’s broadly-happy existence is abruptly blown out of the water by the arrival of Andevai Diarisso Haranwy, who is none other than a magister of the Four Moons House of mages. The Mage Houses are among the wealthiest and most powerful people in Europa; their mastery of the arcane powers have given them an influence up there with potentates such as the princes of the city-states, or even the vestigial empire of Rome itself.
And Andevai has some very personal designs on Cat; he seeks to marry her. For Cat’s family have not told her the entire truth – she was used as a pawn in a vast political game, long before she was even a toddler. And the implications of that game may just shake the entire continent.
Because, you see, the feared General Camjiata has returned, and he threatens to upend Europa’s entire social order in his pursuit of revolution and empire…
WHAT I LIKED
First, a note about the world itself. In true SFnal tradition, Cat’s world itself is a character.
Cat’s world seems to be a variant of ours. The basic landmasses are the same, and some of the history overlaps. However, there are big differences. First of all, the Holocene Glaciation apparently never ended; the ice sheets extend as far south as the 55th parallel. There is no Scotland or Scandinavia in Cat’s world, rather just ice. England does not exist as a distinct entity, as Doggerland is still exposed.
(One great merit of Cat’s world is that UKIP is literally-impossible there. Ahem.)
The Romans lost their wars with the Carthaginians in Cat’s world; surprisingly, this actually seems to have helped the empire as it survived about 600 years longer than ours did. (Presumably the navies of Qart Hadast had the effect of curbing Rome down to a size where it could still manage its affairs, versus the expansion-bloat-collapse behaviour exhibited in our world.)
Christianity and Islam don’t appear to exist in any form; Judaism possibly might, but is never mentioned.
More recently, Europa has been reshaped by the exodus of the Mande peoples from Africa, following the devastation of the Malian Empire by the dreaded salt plague. This exodus also led to the formation of the Mage Houses who now hold so much power across the continent.
Aside from prosaic matters, Cat’s world also has very real magic and a very real spirit world. To say anything more about these is highly spoilerific, so I had better not 🙂
Oh yes, and then there are the sentient dinosaurs who live in North Amerike, and the industrial revolution that’s kicking in over in the kingdom of the Antilles, and the city of Expedition, and, and, and…
Yes, basically, the world building here is truly detailed and truly extraordinary. Frankly, I can recommend this series simply for that.
So, what about the actual story?
Well, actually, there’s several of them.
Running through the books are not one or two, but three distinct but interlinked stories. The first concerns the development of the relationship between the two main characters. The second concerns the growing struggle for political and personal freedom throughout Europa (and later in the city of Expedition as well). The third story concerns the mysteries of just who Cat’s family really were. It’s an ambitious writer who weaves multiple threads together, but Kate Elliott pulls it off quite effectively here. While the plotlines are distinct, they’re also related, and events in one thread influence what happens in the others.
Central to the story are the characters of Cat and Bee; whilst (spoiler!) not actually biologically-related, nonetheless they are extremely close. Whilst others might disagree, it’s clear that they’ve chosen each other as kin – and, actually, that dovetails nicely with the book’s theme of seeking freedom in our lives.
Andevai’s character changes substantially over the trilogy. He initially appears arrogant, haughty and heartless, but the reality is much more complex and much more likable.
WHAT COULD BE PROBLEMATIC
In general, this trilogy is refreshingly-free from the usual mishmash of fail. That said, there are one or two niggles.
First of all I don’t seem to recall there being many LGBT characters. I think Lord Marius is one, and Rory may count as bi, depending on how you interpret his interest in ‘petting’. Also, in fairness, without Christianity and its opinions on sex and gender roles, these things would evolve differently from our world. It’s possible that the distinct categories of ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ don’t exist in Europa.
The whole business of the chained marriage is problematic – but then, it’s also explictly-stated to be problematic in-universe. And, Cat and Vai do discover that there’s a loophole they could use to escape it if they choose to.
Then there’s the matter of James Drake. He goes from oilly and cocky to downright creepy as the series progresses. It’s fair to say that Drake is not a nice man.
One aspect that some readers may find difficult is that the series doesn’t really have an absolute villain.
Even Drake has a few tragic aspects to his character – he is basically the end-product of Europa’s system of aristocratic privilege, and is so used to absolute control over others’ lives that he literally cannot see why this is wrong. And his ideas on training fire mages are probably valid. As for the spirit courts, it’s implied that they’ve done a pretty good job of chaining themselves through their arcane arms race with the dragons. Cat’s true sire, whilst a darker shade than many of the others, nonetheless is also a slave to the courts and ultimately all he wants is his own freedom. For his part, Camjiata’s social and political ideas are definitely progressive, and his legal code is one of the best hopes for the commonality, but his own methods are morally-grey. Whilst not a total bastard – on a human level he’s pleasant enough company – he is nonetheless happy to throw people away the moment they become inconvenient.
Interestingly, whilst Europa and Expedition’s radicals want the establishment of what is essentially a representative democracy, the d-word is never used anywhere in the trilogy. I suspect this could be deliberate – there is a single throwaway reference to the ancient ‘wealthy kingdom’ of Sparta, but no mention ever of Athens. Apparently Athens either never existed, or didn’t amount to anything. But then, in our world Athens survived its wars with Sparta via its navy, and of course sea levels are lower in Cat’s world because of the ice. And if the coast wasn’t at Piraeus, but a few miles further out, then the Europan Athenians might not have had the ‘wooden wall’ option. In which case Athens’s abortive democracy would simply have been a footnote to history, unlikely to be remembered centuries later. If this was deliberate, it would be pure brilliance.
Lastly, I had a couple of niggles from the world-building. India and the Far East are not really mentioned. (I think China – or Cathay – gets a throw-away mention, but that’s it.) Does no-one in Europa want silk, or spices? Also, what about Australia? Given Europa’s level of technology, they should be vaguely aware of it by now.
Read this trilogy if you like the idea of an anti-colonial alternate history. Also read this trilogy if you enjoy steampunk and like works with lots of influential female characters. Read this trilogy if you like nuanced and complex romance plots (while Cat and Vai get there in the end, it’s fair to say that they do have to earn their happy ending!).
However, if you prefer straightforward narratives with a black-and-white hero/villain dichotomy, and aren’t interested in political themes, then you’d probably get less out of this one.