Starting the second book of a trilogy presents challenges for both reader and writer. There's a need for recapping, but the story must move on from the outset. Kate Elliott's solution is to open Shadow Gate with Marit's story. Marit was a reeve, flying with a giant eagle across the lands of the Hundred, enforcing the traditional laws agreed between the temples and towns. Then she was murdered. By whom and why was a central mystery in the previous book, Spirit Gate. We discovered the answer in the final pages, and returning to her story deftly ties the two books together. By looking back to Marit's murder, some twenty years earlier, and dipping briefly into her experiences since, Elliott can also refresh the reader's recollection of those decades. Better yet, she introduces new puzzles to further hook the reader. The price of this might be momentary confusion over the timeline if the reader's not paying close attention, but that's a minor quibble.
Marit has become a Guardian, a supernatural arbiter of justice defending the Hundred's laws. But the Guardians disappeared sufficiently long ago for their memory to pass into myth. Why has she been chosen? More worryingly, why are other Guardians emerging with no interest in peace or justice? Lord Radas, whose murderous army was halted at the end of Spirit Gate, is one such evildoer, apparently unkillable. Marit knows she will need allies among the other Guardians to defeat him, but finding them proves horribly problematic.
In Lord Radas and his army of thieves and rapists, Kate Elliott offers a fresh take on the classic Dark Lord. Magical powers are all very well, but there'd be a limit to the evil he could do on his own. It's the ordinary men who follow him, abandoning conscience and law, who really do the damage. We see their depredations in all the story's threads. But who is going to stop them? There's no single grand hero leading the forces of Good. Joss, once Marit's lover, now high in the Reeve Hall's councils, is struggling to protect the towns and country folk under attack. Anji, commander of the exiled Qin forces who broke Radas's advance, is busy hunting down the enemy's remnants while his pregnant wife Mai looks to the longer term and how the Qin will secure a new life in the lands of the Hundred. Keshad and Zubaidit, slaves who've finally paid off their debt, find their escape frustrated when they rescue a family of girls and children fleeing the slaughter of their village. All convincingly portrayed with individual foibles and flaws, these are people the reader can fully engage with. Crucially, as the story unfolds, we begin to hope ordinary individuals might achieve things through intelligent co-operation that a more noticeable mighty hero could not.
These interwoven narratives give this story a solid reality that doesn't pander to common misconceptions of secondary world epic fantasy. Kate Elliott is too intelligent and unsentimental a writer to anticipate ill-informed accusations of misogyny or class-bias with proto-feminist characters declaring unfeasibly democratic ideals. This is a pre-industrial society where gender and birth determine an individual's future. This is the world these characters have been born into and they don't question it. Why should they?
But as with so much current epic fantasy, the Crossroads series is far from a cookie-cutter tale of a simplistic battle between Dark and Light set in some European medieval pastiche. The genre has moved far beyond that dated template in so many ways. The Hundred is a warm fertile land of rice paddies and fruit groves. On the borders there are deserts and steppes and the Sirniakan Empire with its silks and luxuries beyond the mountains. These societies, their cultures and religions are all complex, coherent, and intriguingly different to default Tolkienesque assumptions.
There are strong female characters alongside strong men, all of whom confront the central challenge of the novel. What's to be done when those with the power, those trusted to strive for the good of all, become corrupted by their own lusts or fail through their own inadequacies? What becomes of a society when the consensus underpinning the rule of law breaks down? Those who relish fantasy fiction's talent for reflecting our own world in its magic mirror will find plenty to prompt further thought.
As Marit unravels the mystery of the corrupted Guardians, other puzzles left over from the first book are resolved. We learn who the blond slave girl with the cornflower eyes used to be, and that who she is now could prove crucial, for good or ill. We discover what happened to Mai's Uncle Hari and wonder what that means for the next book. New puzzles arise. They say every great man has a good woman behind him. Well, this dark lord has a shadowy and still more evil woman driving him on. What's to be done about her? What's to be done about the persistent menace of Lord Radas's army? Can Joss and Anji and their allies win a second victory? Anji thought he had escaped the Sirniakan Empire and its murderous politics. What's to be done when the burden of his birth catches up with him? This book ends with an even greater sense of unresolved questions than the first.
As with picking the right starting point, picking the right ending for an installment in an extended narrative is a considerable challenge for a writer. What's occurred thus far must have been sufficiently enthralling and what's been explained must be sufficiently satisfying for the reader to pause content, eagerly anticipating the next book but not on frustrated tenterhooks. Kate Elliott manages to meet both these requirements. Shadow Gate is a thoroughly recommended read, as was its predecessor. I very much look forward to the final volume and hope to see the author's plans for extending the story into a subsequent sequence fulfilled.
Juliet E. McKenna is the author of nine novels, most recently Eastern Tide (Orbit 2006), the conclusion of the Aldabreshin Compass series. She can be found on the web at http://www.julietemckenna.com/, and as a member of the Write Fantastic at http://www.thewritefantastic.com/.