I really enjoyed Kate Elliott’s steampunky fantasy Cold Magic, and thought I’d explore some of her earlier work while waiting for the third book of that series to come out.
Spirit Gate. Crossroads Book 1. by Kate Elliott
The Crossroads Trilogy is a newer take on the classic epic fantasy. It’s a traditional fantasy epic in that there’s an enormous struggle affecting everyone in one kingdom as well as people in the surrounding kingdoms. It’s much denser than Cold Magic – the books are 500 tall, closely printed pages long apiece. Each one took me a good two weeks to read, when I’m used to reading a children’s fantasy in a day or two and adult books in a week. (Immersing myself into a long book or series is a wonderful thing. But I build my library request list expecting faster turnover, and can get a little stressed as my pile of checked-out books gets taller and taller and taller…) This is detailed world-building, with the close attention paid to the religion, sexual and marriage customs, treatment of women, and slaves in each of the three major cultures we’re exposed to. Rather than the traditional quasi-northern European setting, the story is set in a region where people are several different shades of brown, and the one blond, blue-eyed character is considered by most of the others to be a demon. The world, the culture, the big struggle are all fantasy – but the characters are real people with real world issues.
Long ago, in the kingdom of the Hundreds, the gods created Guardians to watch over the land and sit in judgment. The more hands-on, day-to-day watching was to be done by the reeves, with life-bonds to the giant eagles who chose them, and who would fly them over the land in search of injustice. But the Guardians disappeared a generation or two ago, and without them to back up judgment, the peaceful reeves struggle to keep hold of the respect they need to keep the peace. A Shadow has fallen over the land, and no one knows what it is or what to do about it. At first, the Shadow is just a few people missing here and there, but soon there are armies of criminals marching across the land, raping and killing everyone they meet, all wearing a cheap tin star around their necks.
We are introduced to many people whose fates will eventually intertwine, but who don’t know each other at all when we first meet. The reeve Joss, who tries to drink away the dreams of his murdered lover, still works for justice in an increasingly corrupt world. A merchant’s slave, sold into slavery when he was orphaned as a child, hides a treasure he hopes will buy both himself and his sister their freedom. In a faraway kingdom, Mai, a merchant’s daughter in a small town, is given an unexpected offer of marriage by Captain Anji, senior officer of the local Qin overlords, just before he’s transferred out. Although her family members think she’s stupid, she’s an excellent salesperson who has worked hard to be happy, no matter what life gives her. Anji – his own history a complicated secret – is the first person who doesn’t underestimate her. With Mai come her slave Priya, former nun of the Merciful One, and Mai’s only slightly older cousin Shai. Only Mai knows that Shai has the shunned ability to see and hear ghosts. He brings with him his slave, Cornflower, the blue-eyed blond girl that only Mai can’t believe is a demon. While the bad guys are very, very bad, and we never really see into their heads, none of our protagonists is perfect. Elliott does a fabulous job of making all of these characters come alive and keeping them straight, a challenge in a work of this scope.
There is both sweet, slow-budding romance and some straight up sex, mostly all with the bedroom door shut in our faces, as it were, none of it offensive to me. The violence levels, however, were another matter. That wayward army does every horribly ugly thing I’ve read about unofficial armies doing, most recently in Africa, though really throughout history. People are maimed, tortured, raped and killed every time they come in contact with the army. Mostly we see our characters finding the victims afterwards, but it’s still plenty brutal. Poor Cornflower gets raped repeatedly, as she is both a slave and not considered human. It was too much violence for me, both stomach-turning and repetitive. That being said, most of the characters that we care about and their loved ones stay safe, so Elliott isn’t jerking the heartstrings by torturing her main characters. There are readers less sensitive than I am who will not be bothered by this at all, but right now, I’m seriously considering not finishing a trilogy I otherwise enjoyed, the fate of whose characters I am quite concerned about, because I’m not sure I can take it for another book. My other issue – much less serious – is with the shadowy enemy controlling that army. They are extremely nebulous in the first book, and while we meet them first-hand in the second, I still don’t see how they could have turned to the Dark Side (not the book’s term) as they did.
Spirit Gate is an immersive fantasy experience, with a good vs. evil multi-stranded plot, strong characters, beautiful world-building, and a thoughtful look at issues of race, class and gender. Read it if you can deal with the violence and are up for the commitment its length and depth call for.