Cat could always see, hear and smell down the threads of magic that make up the spirit world, the fabric of life that sustains the physical world around her. Living under the care of her Aunt and Uncle and cousins of the Hassi Barahal clan, she remembers clearly, her mother saying one thing to her before she died: Don't tell anyone what you can do or see, Cat. Tell no one. Not ever. Except for her best friend and cousin Bee, Cat never had more than a lingering curiosity about her ability. It certainly came in handy when curiosity gets her and Bee into and out of trouble at the Academy. Countless times, her ability to melt into her surroundings and disappear from the awareness of those around her, creeping like the shadow of a silent cat, has saved her and Bee from many a potentially troublesome situation. So too, has her skill led her to stumble upon intriguing tidbits of information that would never have come her way otherwise. For example, why was there such little information about her father? What is behind all the current restlessness in the city streets? Who was the mysterious visitor who demanded information about airship designs from the headmaster at the Academy? Just when she thinks she's about to figure out some answers to these questions, a Magister from the Four Moons House barges into her home and the chill winds of his cold magic sweep around the tide of her life, changing everything she has ever known or believed to be true about herself and the world she knew. In Kate Elliott's words, Cat's world is one rich in a fantastic history and culture, a "mash-up" of ideas invented and real - an "Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendents of troödons". The best kind of stuff.
I read half the novel at the bookstore - you can probably tell I was gripped from page one. I tried exceptionally hard to resist buying the book for the longest time, but, alas, I am not a masochist and therefore could not hold myself back from buying it in the end. I love the world Kate Elliott has created for us and I love her characters, each and every one. I haven't been so excited about a world since the Old Kingdom Trilogy. She's got me trapped in her world and I dont want to be let out!
Okay, I will stop gushing and start describing. From what I've read, two worlds exist superimposed one on the other in Cats world: the spirit world and the physical world. Both worlds are interlinked, especially by magic workers. Most people, including magic workers like the Magisters of the Great Houses can channel magic from the spirit world but cannot see or walk in it. Cat, on the other hand, can, and she finds it both a refuge and a mysterious place that she cannot even begin to understand, peopled by spirits who can protect or endanger. In the real world, there are some interesting tensions as well between those who can wield magic and those who thrive on technological advances. Cat's time is similar to the time of the industrial revolution, and new technologies such as airships are threatening the old traditions and hierarchical systems mages demand from non-magical folk.
What I really thrill at is how Kate Elliott mixes in a deep sense of old culture - similar to the feelings you would get when reading myths or folktales - and clashes it with scientific concepts like the principle of Ideal Gases, and combustion, all seamlessly mixed together so it doesn't feel gimmicky but real. Everything from ghouls rising to the surface from mines dug too deep, to trolls knowledgeable in scientific craftsmanship exist in this world. There are villages deeply rooted in old traditions, where warriors risk their spirits to hunt in the spirit world and bring protection and blessings on their villages for the year. There are ancient bonds between servants and masters of the Great Houses, chains forged from the spirit world that cannot be broken until death. There is a rich history of the different peoples who migrated and intermarried and created civilizations that have risen and fallen and carved out the landscape and current situations that Cat lives in. And, running deep beneath it all is the Wild Hunt. In other words, Kate Elliott amazes me with how realistically complex she made her world.
The characters are fairly complicated themselves. Cat thought she knew where she stood in the world, but one incident precipitates her realization that she might have been living based on lies all this time. She's a very sympathetic and admirable character. I'm tired of reading novels where the heroine never cries and acts like she already knows shes the heroine, and yay for strong, beautiful female leads with perfect flaws who like swords and horseback-riding and pushing good-looking men around blah blah blah. I sometimes get this feeling that what it means to be a heroine is getting confused with these ego-tripping characters that are just - I dont know how to say it but - so obviously tailored based on standard characteristics that are likeable. But, here we have a more realistic character, who cries and feels lost and betrayed, but musters up inner strength from the few truths that she does know in order to fight her way out of ridiculously tight situations. Cat knows how to ride horses and use swords and she does her own bit of shoving good-looking men around, however, she admits that she's scared most of the time and worried that this fight might be her last one, but pulls herself together and does it anyway and in the process realizes just how strong she is just the way she is, confusing heritage and all.
Each character has a surprising past that adds to the main storyline and explains why they are the way they are, but the focus remains on Cat's development, which is how I like it best. The pacing of the novel varies to keep things fresh, but is mostly quite fast-paced with ample action and beautiful descriptions and Cat's personal revelations.
As with such complex worlds, there were times when I thought, "Wow, massive infodump... can't retain...must read this part again and again" because there are just so many different peoples and cultures that exist in Cat's world. I still don't think I've got a complete grasp of all the information provided in this first book of a trilogy. But, for the first reading, I'm usually content just riding the wave and seeing the sights along the way, choosing to remember them or forget them until later. Cat's story alone was enough to keep me entertained through the whole book.
Fiery Shemesh, the conclusion of the story is such a cliff-hanger! Is it impossible for me to read slowly and soak things in more? Jeez. I am the cause of my own reading woes.
Read more reviews by Sharry at http://www.xalwaysdreamx.wordpress.com