The Big Idea: Kate Elliott

Every family has its own activities, to bring them closer together and to enjoy each others’ company. Some like to go hiking. Some play music. Others enjoy a “game night” with Monopoly or Carcassonne. But what about the family of author Kate Elliot? Well. Their family activities are a little more, shall we say, expansive in their ambitions. Elliot explains what they are, and how they relate to her “Spiritwalker” series of books, of which the newly-released Cold Fire is the second.


You know how teenagers are: Always coming to their mom and saying, “MOM! We’re making up a world with our FRIENDS! Want to WORLD BUILD with us?”

The earliest iteration of the Spiritwalker world was my then-high-school kids (a daughter and twin sons) asking if I wanted to world build with them and their friends J and S. Of course I said yes, because any time your teens want to talk or hang out with you in a friendly way it’s a win all around.

I also said yes because I like to world build, the way other people have respectable hobbies. It’s a quirk of mine, picked up when I was myself a teen, possibly from reading fantasy and science fiction novels and wanting to escape the monotony of growing up in rural Oregon. All of my novels emerge out of that rather odd impulse, and so far over my career I’ve written twenty-one novels set in six different “universes.”

I’m not really a Big Idea person. I’m a landscape person. For me, story rises out of the intersection of character and landscape, by which I mean both the physical and the cultural landscape. This may come in part because of my own background in history and anthropology. It was certainly further influenced by my spouse’s graduate studies in Cultural Ecology and Archaeology. Possibly it stems at root from my childhood growing up on a farm in an ethnic household with an immigrant mother. Maybe my mind just finds patterns in that way.

What it means for my novels is that I’m continually exploring what diverse cultural landscapes could look like. That’s what happened when I started world building with my children. They had their ideas; I had mine. “Ideas” are tricky things. How a writer filters the influences around her will influence and shape what she writes about and how she writes about the things she observes and contemplates, as well as what things trouble or move or intrigue her.

Influenced in part by what my children had already set in place, my ideas veered toward building a sort of alt-Earth with magic, a landscape set in an early industrial revolution that was not dominated by the European nations we associate with the early industrial revolution and with colonialism because those nations did not exist. Nominally steampunk, it would really be more of a gaslamp setting. I specifically wanted to foreground other cultural traditions than the common Anglo-American ones we frequently see in our English-language publishing industry.

I asked myself a series of ‘what-if” questions:

What if there was an alternate Earth that didn’t have an England or even any Germanic-language-speaking peoples because of an extended Ice Age that covered parts of northern Europe?

What if, therefore, the Americas hadn’t been colonized, so their political landscape would look very different?

What if refugees from the powerful Mali Empire had gone to Europe with gold and status and become part of the ruling class? What if the rise of industrial technology was destabilizing the old order, but the radical notion of new rights sprang from a community-based rather than individual-based model of rights? What if humans had access to magical forces that could redirect the normal flow of entropy? Just go with me on the last one because an actual physicist gave me that line.

Out of that landscape walked a character and her story: An orphaned girl who lives with her aunt and uncle and her beloved cousin, her best friend in all the world, finds out in a shocking and unpleasant way that just about everything she thinks she knows is a lie–just about everything, except for the love and loyalty of her cousin, which is absolutely real and unshakeable.

Which is how I ended up with an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy adventure with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons.

What about the children? you may ask. Because while it is my trilogy, my story, and my characters (with a couple of exceptions), the landscape would not exist if they had not set some of its fundamental terms. Interwoven with the things I brought to the story are the things they brought to the world. That is one of the reasons I call the story a mash-up, with elements plucked from all over, thrown together in the kitchen sink, and churned with a big heaping of delight.

Twin B was insistent that there was a hidden war going on beyond human ken, involving spirit courts (the day court and the night court, a variation on old Celtic Faery) and dragons. Something metaphysical, he said, dealing with the rulers and the ruled and the need for revolution. Interestingly, Twin B is currently working as a longshoreman, a member of the ILWU.

Twin A, more pragmatic and worldly in his warlike tendencies, wanted a Napoleon analog, and empire. Because there can never be enough Napoleon. And empire. Did I mention empire? Furthermore, Twin A has outlined several Important and Crucial battles that I may not have space to write. Interestingly, Twin A is currently serving in the US Navy.

Finally, you may ask yourself, what about the daughter? What feminine touch did she bring to the proceedings?


Remember the “intelligent descendants of troodons” mentioned above? They are her invention: human size, agile, intelligent, detail-oriented, and technology-creating sapients complete with feathers (just like paleontologists recently found in amber, although the descriptions she wrote up for me were written several years ago). The ones met in the story are lawyers, printers, and radicals. The daughter, meanwhile, is in her final year of earning her B.F.A., with an emphasis in printmaking. She’s also written a couple of stories set in the Spiritwalker world, about “trolls,” as the humans call them.

Most of the above elements are introduced in book one, Cold Magic.

But because I’m writing this on the occasion of the publication of Cold Fire, which is book two of the Spiritwalker trilogy, I feel I should close with an example of an important thematic element and setting detail that appears in book two that doesn’t appear in book one. Besides the clockwork velociraptor, I mean.

That’s easy enough.



Cold Fire: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit her blog. Follow her on Twitter.

24 Comments on “The Big Idea: Kate Elliott”

  1. Ooh, maps*! And an ‘Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy adventure with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons’ sounds like something I need in my life.

    * I don’t know why, but I am such a map fan in my fantasy.

  2. Hi Kate.

    I do think that the readers of Whatever are going to like Cold Magic. I did, even with my “untrustworthy Romanophilic tendencies”

    The trolls were an unexpected element, and excellently done.

    (Friends, if an author gives you such an epithet–you embrace it. Because its true)

    And I just bought the kindle version of Cold Fire, too. :)

  3. When I enlarged the map and saw the “Wagadou Federation”, with New Gao and New Jenne, my squeal of transcendent delight nearly broke the windows.

    I also love that this sentence exists (Paul @ 10:01 am): “I just bought the kindle version of Cold Fire”.

  4. I’ve read both books, and I recommend them to anyone who likes (or even might like) fantasy. The Big Ideas they use as scaffolding are brilliant, but its the characters I’ve really fallen in love with. (Not that you can really pry the characters loose from their social ecology in Kate Elliott novels, anyway; they’re far too real for that.)

  5. “What if there was an alternate Earth that didn’t have an England or even any Germanic-language-speaking peoples because of an extended Ice Age that covered parts of northern Europe?”

    Oh, boy. Catastrophe coming. IIRC, the last time someone (Pat Wrede) tried this kind of worldbuilding – “hey, what about an alternative earth in which there weren’t any native American nations!” – the internet basically spent the next two months exploding. Google “Racefail” for more details…

  6. ajay,

    I’m making a possibly unwarranted assumption, based on the author’s (real) name, but this may fall under “you can take liberties with your own ethnicity that you can’t take with other people.” Also, writing people out of history is more icky when they are people who really have been ignored, trampled, and generally written out of history for entirely too long.

  7. But no England or Germanic-speaking nations.

    I don’t think there’s any concern about the Anglo/German peoples being written out of history, whereas one is quite likely to find schoolchildren in the US who believe that all the Indians are dead.

    In any event, I really enjoyed both Cold Magic and Cold Fire, although I had some difficulty following the politics. But the settings are unique and brilliantly vibrant, the characters engaging but believably flawed, and the story keeps getting more twisty and complicated. They’re great fun.

  8. I read the first (COLD MAGIC), said Hot Damn, I’m buying this for the bookstore.
    Then I anxiously awaited COLD FIRE……and it’s even better than the first.
    Except for the ending. You were evil to my favorite character on the ending.
    But if you make the last book come out Real Soon Now, I will forgive all.

    Yours in bookselling this beautiful series –

  9. Earth that didn’t have an England or even any Germanic-language-speaking peoples because of an extended Ice Age that covered parts of northern Europe?

    No England, but does that mean Scotland and Wales are still around? And Ireland? Island?

    Also, what about all the Germanic tribes (considering Germanic or Germans was a term used by the Romans and Greeks to defines others) that lived in Middle and Eastern Europe?

    I kind of like the idea, but considering linguistics it makes me go Huh?

  10. Thanks for all your kind comments.

    Becca: As may be obvious, I really love maps. Any sort of map, really, not just fantasy maps. There’s something about the graphical representation that pleases my inner patternmaker, I guess.

  11. Vanades, there is a certain contradiction inherent in writing IN ENGLISH an alt history set in a world that purportedly has no Germanic-language-descended languages.

  12. Maybe I’m displaying my ignorance here, but weren’t the Americas colonized by the Spanish? Why would the absence of the English change that?

    And where does a Celtic influence come from, if the British Isles are covered by ice?

    I’m also finding a hard time imagining a wildly divergent alternate history giving rise to something so specifically British as the Regency era.

    I dunno. I’ve been meaning to read this series anyways, having enjoyed the author’s previous works, but I have to say this post has left me more confused than enthusiastic.

  13. zedmeister, the Celts — such as we can identify a group as “the Celts” which we can’t really, except possibly as a linguistic or cultural assemblage — originate in continental Europe (see forex Hallstat and Tene cultures). Celtic peoples moved into the NW of Europe later, probably displacing or intermarrying with earlier groups; the survival of Celtic peoples in the British Isles is due in part to the islands being cut off from the continent and thereby being on the fringe. All kinds of things survive on the fringe. But the Celts did not arise in the British Isles; Celtic “nations” famously invaded Greece and sacked Rome way back in the day.

    All that aside, because this is not glacial maximum, only Scotland is covered by ice, not the whole of the British Isles. My apologies to Scots.

    To clarify re: English. I state that I avoid Germanic-language-group based place names like, say, Anglia or England. However, “avoiding” Germanic language based place names while writing in English is a bit of a contradiction in terms, since I’m using English for places like Newfield or Expedition. In this fantasy, the Americas were not colonized by the Spanish since Spain as we know it never developed. None of the nation states as we know them did.

    Finally, you’re quite right about the Regency era. I am using the term in its literary sense of “Regency romance” (a la Jane Austen), to suggest that there is a romantic element in the story.

%d bloggers like this: