Kate Elliott is a prolific writer, producing over twenty fantasy and science fiction novels and several highly-acclaimed short stories in the last three decades. This year alone will see the publication of not only The Very Best of Kate Elliott, a collection of twelve short stories and four essays, but also two new novels: Court of Fives and The Black Wolves, and Elliott shows no signs of slowing her output in the future. Thus it was with some prickliness that I began reading The Very Best of Kate Elliott, thinking that the title would prove to be ambitious at best (and disappointingly superlative at worst).
The introduction provides insight into Elliott’s progression from young reader to mature writer of fiction and why she writes the way she does, reflecting her family’s experiences as Danish immigrants to Oregon and her own experiences with fantasy literature of the 1960’s and 70’s. Though the novels she read as a teenager focused exclusively on male characters and their agencies and narratives, she realized that the women who don’t exist in written histories or fiction are still real. They have important stories, and she wanted to write in such a way that would give them a voice even when the main characters in her own fiction aren’t female. In The Very Best of Kate Elliott, each single character has value, and she includes every gender, sexuality, race, and social class. Everyone should be able to find representation in the books they read. Everyone has power, though it’s not always of the same kind.
Half of the stories are connected to Elliott’s extant series of books – CROWN OF STARS, CROSSROADS, SPIRITWALKER, and JARAN – but each story in The Very Best of Kate Elliott is easily readable without being familiar with a particular trilogy or heptalogy. Elliott writes in such a way that her short stories are self-supporting: an unfamiliar reader (such as myself) will not be thrown by glaring allusions to important details from other works. For example, I’m sure that aspects such as religion or place-names of “A Simple Act of Kindness,” a story within the CROWN OF STARS universe, would probably make more sense if I’d read the seven-book series. At the same time, it’s an excellent and tragic story about the consequences of a good deed, and reading it and “Riding the Shore of the River of Death” only intensified my wish to read the series, in order to see how the small works fit in with the larger ones.
One of my favorite stories is “The Queen’s Garden,” a stand-alone story in which court intrigue abounds and twin princesses must outmaneuver the machinations of their overly ambitious father. Their weapons are wisdom, political allegiances, and guile, leading to a satisfying conclusion for the young women and their subjects. The setting and culture Elliott created are flawless and thoroughly detailed without becoming overly wordy or complicated. Though it’s a complete and self-contained story, I’d happily read a full-length novel about sisters An and Yara, and the territories neighboring their kingdom.
In a typical swords-and-sorcery tale, the rightful king’s struggle to regain his throne would involve a few sentences about his beloved sister’s years-long imprisonment by their usurper uncle. “The Gates of Joriun,” however, is her story, and it is both heartbreaking and hopeful. Mary must be patient as she waits in her gibbet, pelted with rotting food or stones on a daily basis, spat upon and called a traitor by villagers, comforted by a pack of fortune-telling cards and the steadfast belief that her brother will succeed and free her. Though her current situation renders her physically passive, Elliott includes flashbacks which show that Mary was an active supporter of her brother’s political goals, and the conclusion invites readers to create their own ending for her.
Readers familiar with Elliott’s CROSSROADS trilogy will be glad to see Mai make an appearance in “On the Dying Winds of the Old Year and the Birthing Winds of the New,” a turn-of-the-year story abounding with potential spies, thieves, and the inescapable reach of a powerful man. Elliott’s writing is richly suggestive of the tropical island culture in which Mai, born in a desert, has made her new home. Mai chafes against the constant presence of her husband’s guards, unable to shop at the market, conduct business in her home, or seek new romantic partners without King Anjihosh hearing about it. Elliott’s fully-realized characters actively desire many things, including encounters with their sexual partner(s) of choice.
“To Be a Man,” a SPIRITWALKER story, is seriously sexy in a way which is neither gratuitous, nor exploitative of the shape-shifting sabre-toothed cat/man or the pair of women with whom he shares a steamy bath. Rory appreciates the physical qualities of both Felicia and Ami, but it is their reciprocated sexual interest which is most appealing to him. Sensual without becoming graphic, their scenes are entertaining particularly because of Rory’s intelligence and humor.
Most of the stories in The Very Best of Kate Elliott can be categorized as fantasy, but the two JARAN-linked stories are decidedly science fiction. “My Voice is in My Sword” describes the potential difficulties in introducing empathic aliens to human productions of Shakespeare, which seems like a good plan in theory; in practice, the results are rather more complicated and unexpected. “Sunseeker” features a young woman named Rose, who comes to a bittersweet maturity after discovering that everyone, even the people she holds most dear, have their own motives for capitalizing on her existence without ever asking what she wants.
The four essays which conclude the collection were included because their topics are connected to the themes expressed in Elliott’s fiction. In “The Omniscient Breasts: The Male Gaze Through Female Eyes,” Elliott asks: Who views, and how? What does it mean to be objectified by an author or reader? “The Narrative of Women in Fear and Pain” argues that women don’t have to always or only be in danger in order for an author to tell a good story. Women can be sexual beings without automatically experiencing retribution. “And Pharaoh’s Heart Hardened” explains that racism hurts all citizens of a nation or culture, no matter who it’s directed against. Finally, “The Status Quo Does Not Need World-Building.” So who does? Anyone who isn’t male, heterosexual, of white European descent, and middle-to-upper class. Since that’s the status quo as recognized by middle-of-the-road fantasy, characters and cultures who don’t fit that description must necessarily be elaborated upon.
Elliott is a writer of remarkable talent and sensitivity. Despite my misgivings about titling this work as The Very Best of Kate Elliott, I am not too proud to admit when I am wrong. This is, truly, a demonstration of the very best of Elliott’s abilities. I look forward to the inevitable Volume Two of The Very Best of Kate Elliott, but for the time being, I’ll content myself with reading more of her novels and shorter work as they are published.