Kate Elliott's Alternate Earth

RT loves Kate Elliott's newest release, Cold Magic. This unusual science fiction read has RT Senior Reviewer Natalie Luhrs raving,"Of all the alternate history fantasies published in the last few years, this one may just be this reviewer's favorite." Now hear from Elliott about why she wrote an alternate history novel and what makes her story so different.

You may wonder why I wrote an alternate history fantasy when I don’t really read alternate history very much. I wondered, too.

When I think of the phrase “alternate history” I tend to think of novels about “what if,” usually on the theme “what if the Nazis had won World War II” or “what if the South had won the Civil War.” These are not stories that I’m particularly interested in reading. They tend to focus on a pivotal point in history when, say, a battle was lost instead of won or some future Great Man looked the wrong way when crossing the street and got hit by a car, and then the story unfolds from there to see how history would have been different. 

My Crown of Stars series and Crossroads trilogy are both what some people call “secondary world” fantasy--that is, they are set in an entirely different, non-Earth world (even if there may be similarities). One of the great things about writing secondary world fantasy is that I am the ultimate authority on the world. I have to make the world consistent internally--that is, if I say that only females can wield magic, I can’t then drop in a male magic user unless I explain why he is the exception to the rule--but I’m the one who gets to say (every parent will be familiar with this phrase), “Because I said so.” 

The thought of writing an alternate history for our Earth scared me. If I am going to use real historical cultures, then I’m bound to get something wrong, and someone is sure to notice and call me on it (and they should!) But sometimes you just have to be willing to tackle a job that makes you nervous, that forces you to push yourself into territory beyond “because I said so.” 

As it happens, this “different Earth, with magic” (in the phrase of one of my early readers) really took hold of me. On this Earth, much of northern Europe in 1838 is either under ice or is a barren landscape where few can live. The Roman Empire never fell, only got smaller. Due to a magical plague, Europe is a mix of cultures from old Europe and Africa. Meanwhile, this extended Ice Age cut off much of North America for so long that several small species of dinosaurs survived and one developed intelligence very like our own. And these “trolls”--as the humans call them (they call humans "rats")--are busily engaged together with humans in a culture-changing industrial revolution.

Beneath all that “altered history” there are extremely powerful magical forces at work. When my heroine quite abruptly runs afoul of certain of these magical forces, she discovers a hidden history she never guessed at, one that puts her in jeopardy.

What I realized, writing Cold Magic, is that I do like “alternate history” if by that we mean “a different Earth, with magic.” I’ve enjoyed Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest (19th century); the forthcoming (Feb. 2011) License to Ensorcel, by Katharine Kerr (modern day); or the recent Sherlock Holmes film with Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law. And there are many more, often published under the label “urban fantasy” or “paranormal romance.” I think this alternate history thing is a lot bigger than it looks, and now that I know how much I love exploring these different Earths, I’m glad I have so many more books to read. 

- Kate Elliott