Enthralling Politics and Shaky Magic in “Ice Like Fire”

This review contains major spoilers for the first volume in the trilogy, Snow Like Ashes! Read at your own risk.

On the heels of 2014’s Snow Like Ashes, Ice Like Fire, its sequel, follows a tattered country trying to rebuild itself, a Queen chafing against the restrictions of her new crown, and the unleashing of ancient magic that may have been better left hidden.

Meira, whom we met among the scrappy band of rebels in book one is––surprise!––the reigning monarch and magic-bearer for the kingdom of Winter, a land of constant snow. Until the events of Snow Like Ashes, Winter was in shambles, its fields barren, and its people confined to work camps courtesy of the kingdom of Spring and its ruling tyrant. In Ice Like Fire, Winter is once again the keeper of its lands and its rightful heir holds the throne, but now, owing to its need for defense and resources, it’s occupied territory, and once again at the mercy of an untrustworthy power.

Spanning across four “Season” kingdoms of author Sara Raasch’s creation (the two mentioned above, plus Summer and Autumn), as well as four “Rhythm” kingdoms with specialties in culture and industry, Ice Like Fire is a tale deeply invested in aftermath. Now that Meira is Queen, what of herself must she sacrifice to fit the role? Now that Winter has to fend for itself, where will it get what it needs to survive? And, should any of its more powerful neighbors try anything, how will it withstand attack?

When Ice Like Fire focuses on these more grounded concerns, even when something entwined with its far-flung magic system is at stake, it sticks the landing almost every time. Raasch is marvelous at using Winter’s occupation by the Rhythm kingdom Cordell to drive a reasonable wedge between her Winterian characters. Where William, the seasoned former leader of Winter’s rebels, is keen to accept Cordell’s aid even on pain of losing sovereignty, Mather, Meira’s childhood best friend, sees an invasion in disguise. The resulting conflict is fiery and personal, but not melodramatic, owing to Raasch’s skillful tailoring of ideology to the substance of character. William––jaded, cautious, grief-stricken––is the perfect opponent for Mather’s young, stubborn pride.

The same goes for Meira and the impulsive decisions she makes while struggling to restrain her own pride and suffering the indignity of ruling a country entirely dependent on another. She clashes with Mather in this volume, with qualms that feel organic and true, but for the most part, she’s trying to keep her footing in a romance with Theron, her former fiancé, and prince of the very kingdom she suspects is trying to make a meal of her own.

In Theron, Raasch makes the compelling choice of foolish optimism, an angle which then lets her tease out the nuances of Theron’s tension with his father, the king of Cordell, while also shining insight on his deepest moral flaw: his refusal to acknowledge his countrymen as Winter’s oppressors. Without the will-they won’t-they in place for him and Meira, Raasch might have stumbled in keeping tension alive for them in book two, but putting this into play, she gains both a source of intrigue and a burgeoning indictment of a character who could otherwise be written as all-good. Instead, it is his very goodness––his blind faith in the powerful––that makes him dangerous.

Coupled with the introduction of some enticing new characters (the ruling family of Summer, in particular) and the usual varied and textured lineup of settings, the Snow Like Ashes series remains sweeping and absorbing in its second volume, but there are deeper mechanisms at work, setting the stage for book three, and those, forebodingly, grind at the edges of the story Ice Like Fire is trying to tell.

Raasch’s prose is apt where it concerns description and dialogue, but introspection, especially through Meira’s parts in first person, is both clumsily executed and too-often leaned upon. The tool of a character taking a paragraph at chapter’s end to announce their plans already reads as a bit trite, but Meira is never not putting the foot down in her stream of consciousness, with increasing detail and density of page time.

The end of chapter five runs for nearly a page of plotting before landing on “I will not return from this trip without a way to keep my kingdom safe.” Chapter twenty-eight ends with five pages of almost unbroken deliberation––it gets worse as the book progresses, and more and more comes to rest on the workings of its nebulous and excessively powerful magic system. It almost comes across as Raasch trying to make sense of her own creation, with a half-declaration, half-explanatory monologue slapped in whenever something of a magical nature needs to shift.

And the magic, exposed by the plot’s greater reliance on it in the second volume, is fast coming into relief as the series’ greatest weakness. A vague magic system isn’t necessarily a death knell: it’s something that good political worldbuilding, like Ice Like Fire‘s, can work around. But in centering the magic, both with the discovery of an ancient source known as the Magic Chasm, and with the onslaught of a manifestation of evil known as the Decay, Ice Like Fire leans on weak scaffolding that probably would’ve held up fine were it not for the additional weight.

Now, everyone’s fighting over world-ending magic, as opposed to something more grounded, like land, or food, or autonomy, and we discover in the process that the magic itself isn’t all that interesting. It doesn’t have any limits capable of forcing conflict, nor is it a skill that we can watch our characters struggle to acquire, so…what is it?

I hesitate to say nothing, if only because I so desperately want Frost Like Night to be the answer of complexity this magic system needs, but the floor most definitely sways underneath it as we proceed on, and the climax is almost always where stories like this falter. What this portends about the landing Raasch may or may not stick, I’d rather not say.

Author: Pippin Hart

Pippin Hart read Jane Eyre when she was sixteen, and will spend the rest of her life chasing the high.

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