Kate Elliott’s writing has long concerned itself with war, and most particularly, with the effects of war. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her Crossroads trilogy (Spirit Gate, Shadow Gate, and Traitor’s Gate, published by Tor in the US and by Orbit in the UK), which opens on a land long at peace, proceeds through brutal war, and ends in the aftermath.
Elliott has said she titled the series Crossroads because it features the meetings of different peoples from different regions and cultures. And that’s what she does, in a manner that has not always been to the forefront in epic fantasy: in the land of the Hundred, as incidents of brigandage mount towards social disruption and outright war, people from different cultures—from the warrior and leader Anji and his bride Mai, to the Reeve Joss and the people of the town of Olossi—encounter and move past each other, make friendships and alliances and betrayals.
I’m going to be honest with you. I’m bad at talking about this trilogy: it does so much, across such a broad canvas, that I default to wavy hand motions and babbling. Giant eagles! Multiple cultures! Ordinary people who are not soldiers suffering the effects and after-effects of conflict! And did I mention the giant eagles?
In the Hundred, a long time ago, the Guardians set down laws and instituted the reeves, an organisation of lawkeepers who ride around on giant eagles (GIANT EAGLES!) and keep the peace.
(I’m being flippant. You’ll all just have to live with that, because I love this trilogy but the amount of detail and worldbuilding and just general stuff going on in it dwarfs my ability to outline in just one short post—so you should all go out and read it right now.)
But the Guardians have—it seems—been gone a long time. And the reeves are growing less effective at keeping the peace. In the first book, we meet the reeves Joss and Marit, and in the course of an investigation, Marit is murdered.
But she doesn’t stay dead. Because the Guardians—there are always and ever only nine of them—have gifts from the gods. A cloak which grants protection from death, altars for communicating across distances, winged horses for swift travel, a light which radiates from their hand, a staff of judgment, an offering bowl, and a third eye and second heart to understand the hearts and minds of other people. And when Marit dies, it turns out that one of those cloaks came to her. As events progress, we discover along with Marit that the army invading the Hundred is led by other Guardians. Corrupt Guardians, led by a woman called Night. It is up to Marit to recruit—to convert—Guardians to stop this corruption.
Among many other things that are going on here, including an emphasis on community-building, are the connections made by people who aren’t fighters. Domesticity! Against a background of a WORLD AT WAR!
It subverts the expectations of epic fantasy. It takes things old and wise and makes them frail, human; it takes the idea of the just soldier-leader, the saviour-king, and interrogates it from the perspective of those harmed in his wake.
The Crossroads trilogy is a profoundly interesting one—and to me, very entertaining. Go forth, all of you, and try it!