It seems to me that when an army can recruit so many discontented men and convince so many of them to act in ways they would once have considered criminal, then it is only building with bricks already formed and baked by others. (Traitors' Gate, p.80)
I have said it before (in Vector 256): Kate Elliott is underrated. Writers of epic fantasy—and writers who are female—all too often face the accusation of conservatism, of self-indulgent faux-nostalgic thinking, of excess romanticism, of concentration on the small issues of emotion and personal fulfillment, of treading and re-treading the same over-familiar path of missing heirs and magic rings, farmboy kings and tavern-girl mages, romance and happily-ever-after royal endings. Yet this has never been Elliott's territory—any more than it is that of Katherine Kerr, or Juliet E. McKenna or any of a number of other authors of epic fantasy (some of them male, like George R. R. Martin). From her debut in 1988 with The Labyrinth Gate (as Alis Rasmussen), Elliott has been concerned with big matters: with politics and social tensions, class and imperialism, colonialism, oppression, exploitation, and betrayal. The Labyrinth Gate explored industrialization, slavery, racism, and child labor in a magical nineteenth century context, yet has been persistently and unfairly overlooked in discussions of the origins and progress of Steampunk. It was followed by The Highroad Trilogy (1990), sharply political SF concerned with colonialism, terrorism, and labor rights. Relaunching herself as Kate Elliott in 1992 with Jaran, she continued to explore the same background as the Highroad books (read the acknowledgments), paying meticulous care to details of culture clash, of the impact of new technologies, ideologies and expectations in a conservative culture, of oppression and class consciousness, and melded it with a playful and subtle homage to Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine. Her books are long, certainly, and they sometimes contain heirs and servants and farm-boys, but conservative and romantic and self-indulgent they most certainly are not.
If I had to sum up the Crossroads trilogy in one word, that word would be unflinching. Nothing in this world comes easily: there is no security, even for the richest and the strongest. Not that the richest and the strongest are central to Elliott's story anyway. This is a narrative above all of displacement in all its forms—from home, from native land, from family, from means of production, from self, even from life. There are no charmed lives here and precious few certainties: if you read fantasy for reassurance, this is not the series for you.
Elliott's is a world in flux, in danger from threats both internal and external. The lands of the Hundred were once protected by a system of quasi-magical Guardians and human Reeves, but these structures have long fallen into disarray, neglect, and corruption. The territories of the Hundred are at war with each other, and menaced by the distant Sirnakian Empire. The characters—and they are numerous—are scattered across their world, facing dangers both personal and political. Their stories interweave in a complex pattern and it can be hard to keep track of everyone and their histories—and this reader must confess that she found some characters more engaging than others. But each narrative braid informs and supports the others, both overtly and subtly. Keshad, the former slave, has left the Hundred for the Empire, where he finds treachery and corruption—but learns new and significant things about the nature of the world. Reeve Joss, trying to hang on to the remnants of law and justice in the face of the crumbling organization to which he has given his life, must learn how to lead: must, indeed, grow up at last. His ex-lover, Marit, has learned that death is not always final—but that becoming a Guardian presents its own temptations and dangers. And Mai, the merchant's daughter and wife of the mercenary Captain Anji, must face loss and betrayal at the closest quarters, as she learns that love is not, in the end, proof against ambition.
This is challenging territory, much of it far removed from the common image of epic fantasy. We march with the conscripts, not the generals, and witness more fear and cowardice than bravery and heroism, and the heroes—such as they are—can be unkind. As Anji observes, "I have taken part in the sack of cities . . . I do not think even so that the folk in those places deserved what befell them. They were merely unfortunate enough to be there. If any should suffer, it should be their leaders, and yet too often those who rule can buy their way out of worse grief while those who live ordinary lives receive the full blast of the storm" (p. 361). The good are not rewarded: this message is repeated over and over, on both large and small scale, throughout the series, and reaches its full import in this final volume. They may even be deluding themselves, as Mai finds in her dealings with the girl Sheyshi, who she believes she has helped and treated well, or as Joss discovers in his dealing with Anji. The best is not always good enough, in this bleak world, where even getting involved and trying to help can make things worse, as easily as better, as Keshad has already discovered—and, later on, even more painfully, Shai finds.
This is a big, ambitious series with a serious, bleak message: it is, in many ways, almost anti-fantasy. In today's world of long-range wars and domination by seemingly unaccountable corporations, of justice that varies according to income, and ever increasing inequalities, Elliott's tale is far from consolatory. This is political fantasy with a hard, hard, edge and a relevance that cannot be ignored. There are no easy solutions. And any solution—however difficult to achieve—will come with a cost that some will find unbearable to pay. The Crossroads trilogy is a breathtaking achievement, that places fantasy back in the center of political fiction. I commend it to you highly.
Kate Elliott's Cold Fire is the second volume in her Spiritwalker trilogy. It follows on from 2010's Cold Magic, a fantasy set in an inventively alternate Europe, starring the youthful Cat Barahel.
In Cold Magic, Cat Barahel was married against her will to a cold mage in service to one of the powerful cold mage houses, as a result of a contract with her foster parents for the eldest Barahel daughter. Unfortunately for Cat, it turns out that she's not really the true eldest Barahel daughter, the man she long thought to be her father not actually having been her father by blood. As a result, her husband's house wants her dead, so that they may consummate the marriage with her cousin Beatrice instead. In the course of events, Cat acquires Rory, a half-brother who spends part of the time as a sabre-toothed tiger, discovers her cousin Beatrice can "walk the dreams of dragons" and see the future, and spends a lot of time running for her life.
Cold Fire deals with the consequences of Cold Magic, and introduces fresh complications. Before going on to talk about radicals and revolutionaries, trolls and travellers, magical compulsions and salt zombies, though, let's spend a little while on Elliott's marvellously innovative worldbuilding. It rewards the attention.
In the afterword to Cold Magic, Elliott credits her children and two of their friends for collaborative worldbuilding. This is a rich, complex world: a Europe where the ice age never ended and the inheritance of Rome is mingled with that of Celts, Phoenicians, and West Africans, ruled by nobles and merchants and the powerful cold mage houses, who hold entire villages in serfdom; an Africa ravaged by the "salt plague," a disease which turns people into mindless ghouls; a Middle East where Arabs live alongside Phoenicians. The culture has a nineteenth century feel, with factories and gaslamps and airships: there is a Napoleon analogue, Camjiata, the Iberian Monster, who is more complex than his cognomen suggests. There are revolutionaries and radicals of various stripes; troll lawyers, underground printers, agitators for better rights.
The magic is inventive, and the reader has the definite sense that there are more things, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy: even the cold mages fear the Wild Hunt, and whatever it is that dwells in the ice. There are other intelligent beings, trolls and goblins and beings associated with the spirit world whose actions have bearing on Cat's adventures.
In Cold Fire, those adventures once again separate her from her cousin Bee, whose gifts place her in terrible danger not only from the cold mages, but from the Wild Hunt. Wrenched into the spirit world, shocked by the revelation of her father's real identity, and cast up on the far side of the world—in the Caribbean Antilles—Cat Barahel must navigate new dangers, a new culture, and her feelings towards James Drake, the fire mage who saves her from the salt plague, and her arrogant, too-handsome husband, the cold mage Andevai Diarisso Haranwy (whose presence in the Carribbean comes as a surprise), while fulfilling the geas laid on her by her father and trying to save her cousin from a terrible fate—"Dismembered and her head thrown in a well." (p. 159)—at the hands of the Wild Hunt.
Elliott has paid as much attention to the worldbuilding of her alternate Caribbean as she did for Europe. Here power is divided between the free city of Expedition, ruled by merchants, and the Taino kingdom, which is ruled by fire mages. In these equatorial lands, the power of cold mages is much the less. They are, in fact, roundly discriminated against in the city of Expedition, and among the Taino used as "catch-fires" by the fire mages—people who absorb extra fire so the fire mages do not set themselves alight. The city of Expedition is an interesting mix of cultures, and Elliott has put a lot of thought into the Creole spoken in Expedition, and the flavour of its indigenous society: the upper and the lower towns, separated by class but connected by necessity, and because they are not Taino with their fire-mage empress; and Troll town, apart from but part of Expedition. This is a fantasy that considers how the mingling of cultures actually works.
In Expedition, Cat is found by Andevai, who is working there as a carpenter for reasons of his own. Vai takes her home to the lodgings which he and his sister rent from Aunty Djeneba. As Cat slowly finds her feet among the women and labourers of Expedition, her conflicting feelings about her husband become harder to ignore. Her reluctant and yet-unconsummated marriage binds her to Vai: is it possible that friendship and respect, even romance, may yet happen between them? Vai hopes so; Cat is rather less sure, and Elliott deals with this tangle of emotions in a deft and believable fashion.
One of the many things which Elliott does well, here—and Elliott does any number of things well in this series—is to take on the class assumptions inherent in the world of epic fantasy. There are mages and nobles and plutocrats, but there are also labourers and farmers who want fairer laws and better rights. While Camjiata is a conquering general, he's also a man who wrote a code of laws revolutionary in their freedoms. He has supporters still among those who desire better laws. But there are other radicals and revolutionaries whose ultimate goals and present methods diverge, but who share the aim of upsetting the current power structures. Among them are the trolls, who are is more prominent in Cold Fire than they were in Cold Magic, and who live to argue. They apparently make excellent lawyers, and insane scientists.
Cold Fire's conclusion involves betrayals and marriages, invasions, small revolutions, and fighting in the streets. So you might say the radicals are well-represented.
In Elliott's previous work, a bewildering array of point-of-view characters has on occasion exerted a drag on the narrative. Here, the choice to stick to Cat's perspective, and to recount the events in Cat's voice, provides a refreshing change. Cat Barahel has a sense of humour and a personality that combines acerbity and innocence, which—along with Elliott's clear, elegant turn of phrase—makes the book a distinct pleasure to read. Fire maintains its tension, too, rather more evenly than its predecessor: not for this installment the traditional middle book slump. Instead, Elliott drives the stakes upwards, introducing new complications up to the very final pages. We end with much resolved—but much, clearly, yet to come.
Kari Sperring is the author of Living with Ghosts (Daw, 2009), and The Grass King's Concubine forthcoming from Daw in August 2012. As Kari Maund, she is an historian of Britain in the early Middle Ages and has published five books and many articles in that field. With Phil Nanson, she is co-author of The Four Musketeers: The True Story of d'Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis and Athos. She lives and works in Cambridge, England.
Liz Bourke is presently reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. She has also reviewed for Ideomancer and Tor.com.