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Werthead

[Book review]: The Crossroads Trilogy by Kate Elliott

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Book 1: Spirit Gate

 

For centuries the land of the Hundred was ruled by the Guardians, powerful beings to dispensed justice, aided by their reeves, effectively a police force riding giant eagles. The Guardians have disappeared and are feared dead, but the reevers remain, overstretched and in increasingly few numbers as chaos and barbarism spreads across the land. Reeve Joss is given the difficult task of restoring order to an area in the south ravaged of bandit attacks, threatening trade between the Hundred and the Sirniakan Empire to the south-west.

Meanwhile, in lands far beyond the Hundred and the Empire, a Qin warrior named Aniji marries a local woman, Mei, and finds himself and his troop of 200 soldiers drawn into danger and adventure, forcing them to flee their lands and journey into the Hundred, where they find the land on the brink of full-scale war.

Spirit Gate is a compelling story set in an interesting and well-realised world. Whilst Crown of Stars was deliberately set in a very rigid society highly reminiscent of medieval Europe, Crossroads is far more original and fantastical, although the two works share some character tropes and ideas. The book opens with a nice piece of misdirection that holds the attention and directs the reader into the story. However, the pacing is mismatched and key characters, most notably Joss, disappear for long stretches. In other places the timeline is a bit confused, with Elliott not being afraid to revisit the events of several chapters past from another POV, although once you get used to it this plot device does start yielding useful information. There is also a rather odd tendency for central characters to engage in frivolous discussions and banter in the middle of mortal danger, which defuses tension from the book, and after a very impressive build-up to a major confrontation at the end of the book, the actual final battle is resolved in perhaps two pages at best, which is very disappointing.

On the plus side, the relationship between the reeves and their eagles is well-defined. Those fearing that the giant eagles were going to be reduced to cuddly sidekicks can rest assured that these animals are depicted as the dangerous creatures they are. The idea that the reeves are policemen and not soldiers is also nicely done and leads to some interesting exploration of the roles of the police and the military in a fantasy world.

Unfortunately, the central threat in the book is left rather vauge and undefined. Is chaos and lawlessness returning in general because the Guardians are gone and some people are taking advantage of it, or is there a much darker master plan at work? Elliott hints at both possibilities but never really gives us enough information to come to a conclusion.

Spirit Gate (***) is an enjoyable and solid fantasy novel with some very nice ideas which doesn't entirely come together satisfyingly. Still, the novel leaves me intrigued to read the sequel, which I suppose is its main objective.


Book 2: Shadow Gate

 

This is the second book in the Crossroads series, and the middle volume of the first story arc, reportedly a trilogy (preceded by Spirit Gate, which I reviewed here, and to be succeeded by Traitor's Gate, due in 2009).

In Spirit Gate, a number of outlanders arrived in the Hundred to find the land beset by troubles. Armies of vagabonds and cutthroats have appeared out of nowhere to challenge the justice of the reeves, the giant eagle-riding police force who have ensured the rule of law in the land since the disappearance of the Guardians many decades earlier. The outlanders, led by Captain Anji and his wife Mai, joined forces with Reeve Joss and the militia of the city of Olossi to defeat one of these roving armies and build a safehaven in the south-west of the Hundred. However, all are troubled by rumours of beings wielding supernatural powers and riding winged horses - as the Guardians were said to have done - apparently leading the invading armies.

Shadow Gate is a worthwhile and enjoyable follow-up to the first book, mostly because it works on two levels. On the one hand, it is a direct sequel, following up on the adventures of Joss, Mai, Anji, Shai and others following the Battle of Olossi. On the other, it is also parallel novel to the first, explaining a great deal of the mysteries in the first volume. One of the key weaknesses in the first book, I felt, was that the nature of the winged horse-riding beings and some storylines, most notably that revolving around the wandering envoy-priest and the bizarre antics of the slave Cornflower, were decidedly under-developed, to the point where their inclusion seemed to be extremely confusing. In this second volume you get the answers to those questions, told in an accessible and intriguing manner. Any thoughts that this was going to be a simple good-versus-evil struggle go out the window as we learn more of the nature of the Guardians, the rules they operated under and some explanations as to why they disappeared (although the full story, I suspect, will have to wait until Book 3).

At the same time, we get to meet some new characters, such as Nallo, the refugee who is chosen to become a reeve but whose training is complicated when the main reeve base comes under siege, and Avisha, a simple village girl who attracts Mai's favour and has to sort out a complicated love life as well as caring for her family. The new additions to the cast generally give us new and interesting outlooks on the world and the plot, and don't slow the story down too much. The pacing is also good, but arguably the conclusion is not as strong as it might be. Just as the Battle of Olossi seemed to happen very quickly at the end of Book 1, so the two big set-piece battles at the end of Book 2 also get short shrift, but arguably this is less important this time around as revelations about characters and several dramatic scenes between major characters form the meat of the finale, which does a better job of leaving the reader wanting to pick up the next volume straight away.

Spirit Gate (****) is a notably superior book to the first one, and actually makes the first one more enjoyable as well (a full re-read of the first book after the series is completed will pay unexpected dividends, I suspect). The book is published by Orbit in the UK and by Tor in the USA.


Book 3: Traitors' Gate

 

An invading army is laying waste to the lands of the Hundred. The reeves, the giant eagle-riding police force of the land, are unable to hold them back. In desperation they have struck up an alliance with an exiled outlander prince and his militia, but the enemy are led by corrupted Guardians, resurrected beings with the power to look into souls and strike people dead with a glance. The only hope of victory may lie with the uncorrupted 'pure' Guardians. But to achieve this, they may have to give up a terrible secret...

Traitors' Gate concludes the Crossroads trilogy by Kate Elliott, or rather it concludes the opening three-book arc of the series. Future books are planned picking up the story some generations further down the line. For now, however, it is a self-contained trilogy with no major cliffhangers or unresolved plot elements.

It's been five years since I read the first two volumes in the series, so I was initially a bit swamped as I caught up with what was going on. The core storyline is fairly straightforward, but the secret to the success of the trilogy is how Elliott layers in thematic elements to apparently trivial characterisation and how she addresses a wide range of different topics - from sexuality and female empowerment to commerce and religious freedom - within the confines of a more straightforward story. In fact, my biggest complaint about the trilogy as a whole is that it like it could have done with an additional book to help flesh out the world and cultures (a far cry from her prior Crown of Stars series which, whilst very good, could have probably done with at least a volume being shaved off its length).

The book and the trilogy as a whole also explores the concept of corruption and the ethics of the use of power. Elliott has little truck with evil magic or other examples of simplistic morality, instead citing that every person has within them the capacity for good or ill, the Guardians included, and she contrasts well the rigid thinking of the Qin (who prefer to see the world in absolutes rather than shades of grey) against those who are more open to a more complex view of the world. There's a good culture clash element which is not over-egged. There's also a feeling of melancholy to the story: the Hundred is an open-minded, tolerant land which has to become harder and more regimented to fight the invaders and in the process loses something of itself.

The worldbuilding is excellent - the Hundred is not another European medieval fantasyscape but an original creation drawing on many sources - and the characterisation is fairly strong. The pacing is a little off: for almost three-quarters of the length of the novel it honestly feels like there is no way of defeating the enemy and most of the time is spent on less-important character arcs, and suddenly everything spins on a dime. It is done reasonably convincingly, but certainly the ending feels a little abrupt. However, the ending is also deliciously messy. Allies suddenly find themselves at odds and what seems like deliverance could be (and we don't find out for certain) enslavement under a different name.

Traitors' Gate (****) concludes an accomplished fantasy trilogy with intelligence and complexity. Elliott has crafted an interesting world here and it'll be interesting to see what happens there next. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

 

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