A bit of a digression, but...after reading Cold Magic
, I found myself thinking back to my review of Kiss of Steel
, another steampunkish novel and once again, recognizing that, yes, I want romance in my fiction, but I don't want the story to be all about The Relationship.
Which probably means I should stop reading "romance," but no, I'm too stubborn for that.Cold Magic
, ahem, isn't a romance. As least, not at this point. And consequently, unburdened by the need to show how hot the hero/heroine are for each other, it gets on with the storytelling. Since I'm picking on the unfortunate Kiss of Steel
(not a horrible novel, but definitely not for me), I'll note that the backdrop for Cold Magic
, a steampunk-style world where magic and science play uncertainly together, goes much deeper than, "Hey, look, I haz teh steam engines!"
On the cusp of turning twenty, Cat Barahal thinks she understands her place in the world and who she is. The orphaned, only-child of Daniel Barahal and Tara Bell, she lives with her aunt, uncle and cousin/BFF, Bee, in a frigid, quasi-Victorian city.
Set in an alternate history at the start of the industrial revolution, the world of Cold Magic is filled with the expected dirigibles, gas lamps and and political upheaval. Two forces currently vie for power: the noble houses, who seem to represent the forces of industry and science, and the mage houses, who are all about magic (cold magic) and oppose most technological advances (including, even fire - you don't want a cold mage along on a camping trip). A third force, the Wild Hunt, which may or may not be real, is rumored to served as a brutal moderating force, keeping humankind from overstepping their bounds technologically. Revolution is brewing in the streets and a notorious, rebel leader, thought vanquished, may be rising again.
Bee and Cat, however, are largely concerned with staying out of trouble at college, and in Bee's case, catching the eye of handsome young men. Bee, however, is not the typical, boy-crazy ditz; she turns out, quite possibly, to be the stronger of the two young women. Even though
the story is told through Cat's POV and Bee is absent for a chunk of the narrative.
Bee is gone (but not forgotten) from most of the midsection of the novel, because Cat, on her twentieth birthday, is dragged away from the only home she's ever known, to be the wife of a cold mage. The Barahal family is setting out for evening at a rail yard to see a dirigible, when Andevai, a cold mage, arrives, demands the oldest Barahal daughter (as per a contract signed years ago), performs a bit of magic that makes them man and wife, and then whisks Cat away on a cross country journey to his home.
And in the process, Cat comes to realize that most of what she thought she knew about her parents and family was likely a lie. Furthermore, her lost history and parentage is tied up in the greater political machinations that did and continue to unfold.
For me, Cold Magic was notable for a couple of things. First, it features a well-developed, and plot-centric friendship between two women. In other words, even though there is some tittering over boys, Bee and Cat's relationship transcends catty and superficial. Each woman is to the other much more than a sounding board against which to wail about a man. I.e., I'd argue that their friendship passes the Bechdel Test.
Second, Cat and Andevai's relationship evolves ever-so-slowly, from out-right antagonism to a dawning interest. It's especially cool that on meeting Andevai, Cat doesn't immediately decide he's the best looking man evah. She notices, somewhat in passing, that he has features that might be attractive, but his arrogance blunts any of the appeal. Only after he's softened and revealed more redeeming qualities, does she begin to really notice him as a man.
As opposed to the usual approach seen in romantic fiction, where the heroine is immediately wet in the panties for the man she hates. The thing is, contract or not, Andevai has essentially kidnapped Cat. And initially, he's an insufferable prick who won't even let her eat a hearty meal, who snipes at her "poor" clothing, and treats her like glorified luggage. He's an asshole and there's nothing particularly sexy or hot about crushing on your abuser.
Instead there's a much more realistic (and healthy) attraction, that grows and reveals itself in small moments between Cat and Andevai.
This is the first of a trilogy so readers shouldn't expect any significant resolution of any plot threads, romantic or otherwise at the end.
This reader will be continuing on with the rest of the trilogy.
(Note to self: added "romantic shelf" because though there is a romantic element, this, the first book, doesn't have anything resembling a HEA, romance-wise.)