THE CROSSROADS TRILOGY by Kate Elliott
Kate Elliott’s CROSSROADS TRILOGY, the first 3 books in a multi-book series, is a great example of how good epic fantasy can be in so many ways: its world-building is richly detailed and realistically heterogeneous; it has a multitude of characters spanning a wide spectrum of human nature and behavior, most of them nicely individualized; its depiction of war is grimly and painfully realistic; the plot contains some pleasantly surprising turns along the way; its fantastic elements don’t overwhelm the plot and are interesting in their own right; it has layers of complexity versus the all-too-frequent good vs. evil storyline; and it comes to a resolution despite being part of a larger series.
Despite all of this, I have to confess that I found more to admire than to enjoy in the reading, so much so that it was a struggle to finish each book, let alone the trilogy, even as I admired what Kate Elliott was doing with regard to craft and theme.
But let’s start with the good, since there’s so much done so well. The story beings with Spirit Gate and takes place in a land known as The Hundred, bordered by several other territories. Ages ago the land was torn by war and chaos and so the gods created “reeves” — a police force made up of men and women partnered with giant non-talking and still semi-wild eagles, and nine Guardians — seemingly deathless cloaked figures who could see into the hearts and minds of people in order to judge them and who could hand out death themselves in a second. It’s been several generations since the Guardians appeared, the reeves are dwindling in number, respect, and integrity, and chaos threatens to return to The Hundred as bandits start to roam the roads freely, threatening not just local populations but even the reeves themselves, including two of the major characters — Marit and Joss, veteran reeves and long-time lovers.
At the same time, a small group of Qin (a conquering people in bordering lands) led by the uber-competent Captain Aniji and his non-Qin wife Mei (an equally competent merchant and organizer), in flight from the Captain’s past connections to a huge empire beyond the borders, enter The Hundred and hope to make it their home. In order to do so, they end up defending The Hundred against its enemies, including the newly appeared Guardians, some of whom have been corrupted and now lead armies bent on destroying the land.
That’s the basic overarching plot throughout the three books in the CROSSROADS TRILOGY, though as one might expect in such a lengthy work it covers only a tiny percentage of what actually happens, while the cast of characters is far too lengthy to list here. As mentioned above, the worldbuilding is first-rate, filled with the tiny details that create a true sense of an alternate world. Even better is the way Kate Elliott creates fully developed multiple cultures within the world, as opposed to the usual monoculture surrounded by a thin tapestry of “other” lands. The Hundred’s rituals and customs differ greatly from those of the Qin, which differ greatly from those of Mai’s home, which differ greatly from those known as “Silvers,” and so on. Each has a rich sense of religion, ethics, and tradition; each differs in their view toward gender, slavery, domestic issues, etc.
The individual characters are equally strongly developed, each having complex personalities and changing over the course of time and in response to events and to other characters, some in unexpected ways. There are dozens of recurring, relatively major characters, but none of them blur and none of them feel like stock characters. In addition, few of them, if any, can be easily pigeonholed into “good” guy or “bad” guy.
The war that runs throughout is portrayed in detail, and realistically: it’s not merely a matter of a few hacking blades, nor does Elliott try to convey its horror by a simple matter of body count and talking about soldiers dying or even losing limbs. Often the true horror of war has to do with living, not dying, and often it takes place among the civilians — not the army proper. So we get repeated descriptions of rapes and gang-rapes and near-rapes of not just women but men and children; teens and babies are killed as easily as grown men; refugees flood the roads and towns grieve for all they’ve lost. War is an ugly thing, something often glossed over in fiction or shown via faux repulsion, but Kate Elliott keeps its true ugliness before our eyes throughout.
Just as individual characters aren’t easily pigeonholed, the same is true of the “sides” in these novels. One would assume, for instance, that our sympathies are to lie with The Hundred and its fight against corruption and ravening armies, but that sympathy is tempered by the ease with which The Hundred accepts slavery (and here again we see the horror of slavery: slaves not simply as secretaries or personal servants as is often the case in other works, but slaves gang-raped nightly). Yes, the reader wants The Hundred’s defenders to “win,” but the idea of returning to the status quo is discomfiting, to say the least. Another aspect of the complexity of war’s portrayal is the way Kate Elliott shows how war doesn’t simply result in individual deaths or physical destruction of a town here, a village there; it has far-ranging social and cultural impact — a subtlety seldom examined in fantasy.
There is a lot to admire here: the craftsmanship of the author in her characterization, innovative structuring (for instance, much of Shadow Gate covers the same chronological ground as Spirit Gate but from different perspectives), and setting detail. Also the way she parallels certain characters and certain plotlines. For example, the “good guys” actions involve both violence and destruction (creation of an army to kill an enemy), as well as negotiation and creation (of economies and communities), and moral complexities. This is a sophisticated work — and only half done.
But (and this is admittedly a big “but”), Crossroads never really compelled attention — never pulled me forward through the story. Instead I had to drag myself through it, sometimes by reminding myself that I needed to review it. Part of the problem was too much world-building. Lines like (and this is a paraphrase but a close one), “a group of school children, wearing the usual uniform of … with orange bands round the forearms… “ fall into the category of too much information, especially in a 500 page novel. Unless those kids are going to play a major role (they didn’t) or what they were wearing would have some significance (it didn’t), I don’t need to have the story interrupted to tell me this. Now and then — simply to create that full sense of a world — is OK, but there was too much of this.
Another reason for not getting swept along was that there were far too many conversations and too many encounters where, after reading the dialogue or watching someone ride off, I wondered what the point of that scene was. It was all just too slow and filled with too much interruption. I’m someone who is quite happy with a “slow” book or a big book, and “slow” is a rare complaint from me, but these books, all three of them though to varying degrees, unfolded far too slowly for me. Another problem was the “problem”: the sense of a growing chaos was a bit too abstract, while the villains — the corrupt Guardians — were either vague presences or utterly incompetent, all of which robbed the main plotline of tension. I can see a reason for some of this — the “villains” may not be the real “villains” — but if they’re presented as such even on a surface level, they still need to be compelling … and these were not.
Finally, the grimness also got to me a bit, with maybe a baby or two too many stabbed or spit on spear, a rape or two too many. These weren’t graphic and weren’t at all gratuitous, but they did wear this reader down.
So what does one end up recommending with a work that has so much to admire, yet in my mind fails at the most basic requirements of writing: compelling the reader to continue reading? I hate to say it, but I didn’t think the reward is worth the nearly 1500 pages or so of reading, which is a horrible thing to say about a series that is so ambitious and so successful at much of what it aspires toward. It reminds me somewhat of Robin Hobb’s SOLDIER’S SON trilogy, also an ambitious work with much to recommend it save for it didn’t hold the reader’s interest. So, I’ll repeat what I said about that series: give the first book of the CROSSROADS TRILOGY a shot, but if you find your attention wavering or find yourself frustrated with the pacing, don’t continue, because it won’t get much better in those regards. On the other hand, if you find yourself pulled along, then by all means, keep going because you won’t find many more complex or thoughtful fantasy works out there.
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