Top 5 Wednesday: 7/26/17

Series That Got Better

This is my first attempt at a group themed post, so here goes.  Mostly I picked it because I had a particular series I’d been wanting to talk about for ages.

118368  Top 5 Wednesday was created by Booktuber Gingerreadslainey, and the guidelines can be found on the Top 5 Wednesday GoodReads group.

 

1. Crown of Stars, by Kate Elliott

This series is very important to me as a fantasy reader.  Before I discovered it, I’d read the likes of Tolkien and Robert Jordan’s immense Wheel of Time series, and some other epic fantasy, but Crown of Stars was the first series I ever read where each book got better than the one before (and it’s seven books long), where the planning and research that went into these books showed with every plot twist, and where the series came to a satisfying and logical conclusion.  It was, in short, the series that made me realize that long fantasy series can get better.  They don’t have to start out with a cool idea and then just sort of peter out with more and more tenuous plot strings.

This series follows the stories of Liath, an orphan trying to discover her own history, Sanglant, mixed race son of the king trying to prove his worth, and a host of secondary characters representing the various kingdoms and races in conflict within this series.  The main drivers of the world are a monarchy reminiscent of the medieval monarchies of Europe (with corresponding technology and trade), a religion reminiscent of early Christianity, and overtones of imperialism and superstition that make these somewhat primitive nation states aggressive and riddled with domestic issues.

The thing that makes this series so great (and pretty much any series Elliott has written) is that she doesn’t lay all the major conceits and awesome ideas on the table in the first book.  She doles them out slowly for the reader to discover one at a time and add to their shiny collection of ideas and curiosities, to ponder over even while the drama of the story unfolds.  Also, Elliott is great at writing characters and subverting well-known fantasy tropes.

2. Eternal Sky, by Elizabeth Bear

Bear has written a lot of series, in a lot of subgenres of both fantasy and science fiction, so it’s no wonder, really, that her most recent trilogy should be her most successful.  In this story of an alternate universe where the stars and sky change depending upon which empire rules–and therefore which belief system rules–Temur, grandson of the Khan, who ruled the nomadic tribes of what could be Central Asia, and Samarkar, once-princess and now wizard of the Rasan Empire, must work together to stop a powerful sorcerer and his cult of death who wish to bring about the return of a god long thought destroyed and change the sky forever.  It’s a broadly sweeping story that gallops along like the horses so prized in Temur’s culture, that remixes the mythologies of various ages and cultures into something like them, but not.

I have to admit a lot of my enjoyment of this series comes from nostalgia over the year I spent in Central Asia, and how much reading these books reminded me of the endless steppes and towering mountain ranges, and of the feeling that the sky really could go on forever.

3. Bone Universe, by Fran Wilde

This series isn’t actually finished–book 2, Cloudbound, just came out last fall–but it is such an adventurous and unique series that I had to include it. The first book, Updraft, follows Kirit as she attempts to find her place in the sky-bound world of bone towers and rope bridges that make up the City.  In doing so, though, she make shake the foundations of everything her people hold dear.

Cloudbound takes place in the aftermath of Kirit’s discoveries, with citizens attempting to rebuild and look higher, always higher, but it becomes more and more apparent to Kirit and her friend Naton that they must look down, backwards, into the history that made their civilization.  This book took such a hard left turn at the end that I didn’t know quite what to think, but it reminded me of the Golden Age science fiction that so many people seem to be nostalgic about, the sense of wonder those authors had at the ability to create whole new worlds and universes, that I can’t help but include it in this list and look forward to the third and final installment of this trilogy.

4. Inheritance, by N.K. Jemisin

This series follows a world, and a pantheon of gods, more closely than it does a particular group of characters, which I think is a large part of why I liked it so much and why it improves with each book.  It’s a story that doesn’t stagnate, that doesn’t get bogged down in details or how characters continue to navigate in a world of fixed rules or magic or belief.  The first book follows Yeine and the ways in which she comes to terms with the gods who have made the world what it is, and, perhaps, subvert a system that has been dying under its own weight for generations.

The next book, though, barely remembers Yeine, and is instead the story of Oree, and artist who has come to live in Shadow, beneath the great city of Sky, in the shadow of the world tree that grew as a result of Yeine’s actions in the previous book.  Oree has her own encounters with the gods, must come to terms with the ways in which the world has changed since Yeine’s time, and what it means for her.  And finally, book 3, The Kingdom of Gods, is told from the point of view of one of those gods, returning to the royal city of Sky and the family that held onto power there for so long.  Again, this series is about moving forward by accepting the past, and Jemisin’s imagination and reinterpretation of creation mythology is top notch.

5. Revelation Space, by Alistair Reynolds

For m last series I’m going to a hard science fiction trilogy that’s also written by possibly my favorite male sf author.  This series gets better, I think, because of Reynold’s ability to imagine such far futures, when huge ships traveling close to the speed of light almost create separate timelines and humans and aliens alike modify their bodies in order to cope with the rigors of deep freeze and changes in gravity that come with long duration space journeys.  The story, again, is not told from one perspective through all three books, or in a completely chronological progression.  Instead, it is just as much mystery as it is space opera, and the reader collects the pieces of how an ancient alien culture was annihilated almost instantly, and whether it could happen again.  I like that Reynold’s doesn’t agonize over the question of whether aliens could exist and dither over first contact stories, but gets down to the business of crafting a story around people the reader can identify with, and setting up the possibility-laden concepts of aliens so completely different from everything we know that every discovery is not just a curiosity, but a revelation.

I’m also including this series because Reynolds is a writer I’ve followed for a number of years and I’ve enjoyed watching him consistently improve as a writer with each new novel, each new series.  I don’t read a lot of men, but I’ll always check out whatever he comes up with.

Court of Fives, by Kate Elliott

Jessamy
Tonor was born fighting, into a world where the way one looks determines
everything they will ever be able to achieve or aspire to.  But all Jessamy wants to do is run the
Fives, the national competition of strength, agility, and endurance that can
turn even a lowly Commoner into a hero. 
Except her Patron—noble—father has forbidden it.  Suddenly, though, Jessamy has an
opportunity to do the very thing she’s always dreamed, but the cost is the
comfortable and safe family life her father and mother have created almost out
of nothing for her and her sisters.

Court of Fives begins a new young adult
fantasy series full of vibrant and varied young people willing to risk
everything to get what they want out of life.  Jessamy and her sisters have to make hard choices, and
really challenge their understanding of the world in order to survive the
dangerous waters they find themselves in. 
 In twist after plot twist, Jessamy battles the avarice of one Lord out to use her family for
everything advantage they can give him while learning the history of a colonized nation—her mother’s people—trying to pry itself out form under the heel of its oppressors.  The situations Jessamy and her sisters
find themselves in, while they are part of a fantasy world, will be
recognizable and relatable to teen readers, and Elliott never stops taking her
readers seriously.

Elliott’s
world-building and characterization show a deft touch in this new series.  The history of Efea, where the story
takes place, is deeper than at first meets the eye, leaving plenty for the
reader to ponder and look forward to learning more about in the next
installment.  There is no shortage
of personalities and types in this novel, making the reader feel as though
these characters were about to spring off the page and into living, breathing
action.  Speaking of action, it’s a
story about a young woman who is not just capable, but amazingly athletically
skilled, who makes no apologies for her ability, right up to the end, and has
earned it every step of the way. 

Readers
looking for second-world Hunger Games
that features more dynamic and diverse characters need look no further than Court of Fives and its eventual
sequels.  Those who enjoy stories
that put characters in challenging positions where they must take difficult
decisions will like the suspense and action in this novel.  Anyone tired of fantasy that makes
assumptions and doesn’t think about social mores like gender roles and class
structure will enjoy the way Elliott questions everything, creating societies
that are believable and unique, with characters who are self-aware and actually
talk to each other about what matters to them. 

Books I’m Excited to Read in 2016

So last week I posted about books being published in 2016 that I’m excited about.

Now I’m going to talk about the books I’m looking forward to reading in 2016.  This is a slightly different list, since I don’t have the money or the time to buy everything I’m excited about right when it comes out, and actually read it.  My to-read stack isn’t as big as many, but it’s big enough.  So here are a few that I’ve been working towards, and plan to get to this year.  

Of course, more will be added to this stack, and I will, of course, post review of the ones that qualify for this blog.  You can also find all my review at goodreads here

Court of Fives, by Kate Elliott

It’s Kate Elliott!  It’s YA, which I don’t read a ton of, but it’s Kate Elliott!  Here’s a synopsis from her website, kateelliott.com

“In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott’s first young adult novel weaves an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.

Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But at night she can be whoever she wants when she sneaks out to train for The Fives, an intricate, multi-level athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors. Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an unlikely friendship between a girl of mixed race and a Patron boy causes heads to turn. When a scheming lord tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test Kal’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a powerful clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.”


Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor

Another YA, another author I’ve come to really enjoy, so of course I need to read more than just her adult novels.

Here’s a synopsis from her website nnedi.com

“Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. She looks West African, but is so sensitive to the sun that she can’t play soccer during the day. She doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere.Then she learns why.Her classmate Orlu and his friend Chichi reveal that they have magical abilities- and so does she. Sunny is a “free agents,” overflowing with latent power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.Orlu and Chichi have been working with their teacher for years. Sunny needs a crash course in magical history, spells, juju, shape-shifting and dimensional travel. Her new world is a secret from her family, but it’s well worth all of the silence, exhaustion and sneaking around.Still, there is a dark side. After she’s found her footing, Sunny, Orlu, Chichi, and their American friend Sasha are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a criminal. Not just a run-of-the-mill bad guy. A real-life hardcore serial killer-with abilities far stronger than theirs.Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones are Nnedi Okorafor fans. As soon as you start reading Akata Witch, you will be, too.”


Almanac of the Dead, by Leslie Marmon Silko

I picked this one up mostly by chance at my local indie books story, Burlingham Books, in Perry, New York.  They have a small-ish collection, but it’s always varied, always thought-provoking.  I’ve only read one or two novels by Native writers in the past, and decided to fix that, so this will be my starting point.

Here’s a synopsis from Wikipedia, since she doesn’t seem to have her own website

Almanac of the Dead takes place against the backdrop of the American Southwest and Central America. It follows the stories of dozens of major characters in a somewhat non-linear narrative format. Much of the story takes place in the present day, although lengthy flashbacks and occasional mythological storytelling are also woven into the plot.

The novel’s numerous characters are often separated by both time and space, and many seemingly have little to do with one another at first. A majority of these characters are involved in criminal or revolutionary organizations – the extended cast includes arms dealers, drug kingpins, an elite assassin, communist revolutionaries, corrupt politicians and a black market organ dealer.

Driving many of these individual storylines is a general theme of total reclamation of Native American lands.”


Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler

This one has been a long time coming.  I’m not sure what took me so long to get to Butler, but the lack will soon be remedied.  Here’s a synopsis from octaviabutler.org

“When unattended environmental and economic crises lead to social chaos, not even gated communities are safe. In a night of fire and death Lauren Olamina, a minister’s young daughter, loses her family and home and ventures out into the unprotected American landscape. But what begins as a flight for survival soon leads to something much more: a startling vision of human destiny… and the birth of a new faith.”

Bronze Gods, by A.A. Aguirre

I read a YA by Ann Aguirre a year or so ago, and enjoyed it, and now she’s working on a steampunk series with her husband, Andres.  I’ve found that steampunk is a subgenre I really enjoy, so I bought this book (quite) a while ago,  and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since.  2016 is the year it gets moved to the permanent shelves!

Here’s a synopsis from Ann’s website

Janus Mikani and Celeste Ritsuko work all hours in the Criminal Investigation Division, keeping citizens safe. He’s a charming rogue with an uncanny sixth sense; she’s all logic—and the first female inspector. Between his instincts and her brains, they collar more criminals than any other partnership in the CID.
Then they’re assigned a potentially volatile case where one misstep could end their careers. At first, the search for a missing heiress seems straightforward, but when the girl is found murdered—her body charred to cinders—Mikani and Ritsuko’s modus operandi will be challenged as never before. Before long, it’s clear the bogeyman has stepped out of nightmares to stalk gaslit streets, and it’s up to them to hunt him down. There’s a madman on the loose, weaving blood and magic in an intricate, lethal ritual that could mean the end of everything…”

The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson

Nalo Hopkinson!  Another author I discovered because of Burlingham Books.  I’m tempted to say her fiction is a little on the outside of my taste range, but that’s not really true.  I love her work; it’s mainstream SFF that says she should be on the outside of my tastes.  She says a lot that needs to be said, which is, I think, more important than conforming.

Here’s a synopsis, in her own words, from her website nalohopkinson.com

“my novel The New Moon’s Arms was a February 2007 release from Warner/Hachette Books. It’s my fourth novel. I was thinking about Nandor Fodor’s theory that poltergeist phenomena are “caused not by spirits but by human agents suffering from intense repressed anger, hostility, and sexual tension.” Some say that this may be why poltergeists so often manifest around young adults just going into puberty (primarily women, I think). The idea is that reaching sexual maturity in societies as sexually repressed as many of ours can be disturbing enough to some people that they begin to generate psychic phenomena.
I’m not in the business of theorizing whether that’s true or not. I was more interested in the idea. If the beginning of menstruation can be magic, I began to think about what it might be like if there were out-of-control psychic phenomena similarly associated with the ending of menstruation. Magical menopause! Enter my protagonist, who’s 53 years old and going through the Change of life, but with some changes peculiarly her own:

I was boiling. When the sun got so warm?

“…most primitive living pinnipeds,” said Hector.

God, the heat was getting worse.

“…derelict fishing nets…danger…”

Hector didn’t even seem to notice it. Me, my whole body was burning. I could feel the tips of my ears getting red, my cheeks flushing.

“…Brucella…Calamity? You all right?”

“I don’t know. Too much sun.” I wiped some perspiration from my brow. My hand came away wet.

“You sweating like you just run a marathon.”

“A lady doesn’t sweat.” But the dried salt from it was irritating my hand. I rubbed the hand against the fabric of my pants. “Jesus, it so hot!”

Hector looked worried. “That tree over there will give you some shade. Come.”

But before we could take a step, something soft and light grazed my head from above, then landed at Hector’s feet. “The hell is that?” he cried out. He bent to pick it up.

“It didn’t hurt me. I’m okay.” Much better, in fact. The heat was passing off rapidly. I was even chilly.

Hector straightened up. “Where this came from?” He looked up at the sky. I followed his gaze. Nothing but blue. Not even the cloud that must have just covered the sun and made me shiver.

Hector showed me the thing he was holding. I blinked the sun’s glare out of my eyes.

I grabbed her out of Hector’s hand. Bare Bear. Chastity’s Bare Bear. Held so tightly and loved so hard that her little stuffed rump was threadbare, her little gingham dress long gone. “Where this came from?”

“Look like it just fell out of the sky.”

“No, man; don’t joke. It must have washed up with the tide.”

“And landed on your head?”

“I don’t know; maybe this was on the sand already, and something else fell on my head.” Bare Bear winked her one glass eye at me. So long I hadn’t seen her. “A leaf from out a sea grape tree, something like that. Right, Bare Bear?” I hugged Lucky Bare Bear to my chest. I grinned at Hector. “She get small over the years, or I get big.” She still fit in her old place, up against my breastbone.

“You feeling sick?” He asked. “You didn’t look too good just now.”

“I feel wonderful,” I answered.

And because I sometimes like a little science with my fiction, I also resurrected the extinct Caribbean monk seal. Sort of.”


Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor

Because it just looks so gorgeous.  No.  Well, yes, but also because I’m a completist and she’s a great writer.  

Here’s a synopsis from her website nnedi.com

“When a massive object crashes into the ocean off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous and legendary city, three people wandering along Bar Beach (Adaora, the marine biologist- Anthony, the rapper famous throughout Africa- Agu, the troubled soldier) find themselves running a race against time to save the country they love and the world itself… from itself. Lagoon expertly juggles multiple points of view and crisscrossing narratives with prose that is at once propulsive and poetic, combining everything from superhero comics to Nigerian mythology to tie together a story about a city consuming itself.At its heart a story about humanity at the crossroads between the past, present, and future, Lagoon touches on political and philosophical issues in the rich tradition of the very best science fiction, and ultimately asks us to consider the things that bind us together – and the things that make us human.”

The Spiritwalker Trilogy, by Kate Elliott

Few
authors take the idea of alternative history quite as seriously as Kate
Elliott.  Cat Barahal, the story’s
protagonist and narrator, hails from a Phoenician family who live in a city in
the southern part of what most people would recognize as England.  An England with no English Channel to
separate it from the rest of Europe, and one which never became an empire.  It’s the nineteenth century and Rome as
we know it never happened.  Dragons
walk the earth, spirit creatures cross over into the physical realm, and
powerful mages wield cold magic in a spiraling war against those who would push
forward into a more technology-heavy age. 
Oh, and what story would be complete without a revolution?

While the Spiritwalker
books require a willingness to commit to an unfamiliar story that more casual
readers might lack, the wit and life that Elliott breathes into it are well
worth the effort.  Cat and her
cousin Bee are the drivers of their respective stories, and Elliott reveals
their personalities and motivations in a way that really allows the reader to
know them, and that makes the novels in this series progress naturally.  Cat’s position as narrator is
well-written, as Elliott allows her to be both a character within the story she
weaves, as well as a story-teller character in the greater whole. 

If fantasy is defined as a
way of looking back to history and using it to reflect on who we are today, The
Spiritwalker trilogy certainly fits that definition.  Elliott has chosen to write a story of Europe that
encompasses all the myriad ways it is diverse and dynamic, rather than writing
the typically whitewashed version of pseudo-European medieval or Victorian
fantasy.  

Anyone looking for
adventure in an alt-history fantasy setting should definitely pick this series
up.  Readers who like an
understanding of religion and spirituality to go beyond mere tradition and
doctrine will enjoy how the story moves through both the physical and spirit
worlds.  And of course, for those
looking for a story that features young women having their own adventures, this
series is a definite must-read.

Black Wolves, by Kate Elliott

Can
you ever get back what was lost? 
Can the world ever go back to the way it was, or even manage to stop
changing for just a little while? 
Would you even want to?  In
a follow-up to her epic Crossroads Trilogy, Kate Elliott returns to the Hundred
and once again pushes readers into the rushing river of desire, anticipation,
and dread that redefined an entire nation—and reminded readers just how good a
fantasist Elliott is.

Picking
up 16 years after the Qin general Anji declared himself king over the Hundred, Black Wolves is the story of legacy,
what it means, and what we do with it. 
Anji’s oldest son and daughter—Atani and Dannarah—have grown up in the
Hundred, almost inseparable, learning both the ways of their mother’s
traditions from the Sirniakan empire and those of the Hundred, but one day a
secret is revealed that will change their paths forever and put them at odds
for the first time in their lives. 

Elliott
takes a novel step in Black Wolves,
making it not the story of the young and valorous, but that of age, experience,
and—one would hope—wisdom.  The
story cuts forward over forty years, to pick up with Dannarah as not just a
reeve to a great ealge but marshal of Horn Hall, Atani assassinated, and
Kellas—Anji’s most loyal Black Wolf—returning to Law Rock and his role as
arm of the royal family.  Demons,
once called Guardians, still haunt the Hundred, as does Anji’s war of
unification still haunt the Hundred, though memory of a time before persists in
the generations who survived, in the stories they passed down.   

Elliott has written a
meditation on the power of memory, the endurance of faith, and the importance
of family as much as a well-crafted epic fantasy novel, and laid down plenty of
suspense for what is sure to be a gripping new trilogy.  With her rich storytelling style,
Elliott draws a map of the world, even as she paints the smallest scenes of
courage, resistance, and love that make a story worth reading, a life worth
knowing.  Black Wolves gives the hungry reader all the action and heroism
they expect in a fantasy novel, but doesn’t forget that heroism can be found in
even the smallest act, even the most insignificant or unexpected person. 

Black Wolves is the novel for readers
of The Lord of the Rings who wanted
to be a hobbit, not a king.  It is
for those who crave that single act that can change the course of history, who
love a story that doesn’t forget its own past while remaining firmly in the
present.  Readers who are looking
for a fantasy epic that doesn’t forget there is another half of humanity with
stories to tell will enjoy how Black
Wolves
values all genders, all ages. 
Those who want stories of empire, intrigue, and betrayal that take all
their characters seriously will enjoy the way Elliott fills out each character,
even the villains, and doesn’t treat world building as an afterthought.

On Historical Accuracy

GRRMartin, it seems, can’t stay out of the news–at least within SFFdom–and while I’m definitely not going to devote a post to his latest ass-hattery concerning “rape vs. dragons,” I would like to write a post in response to the utterly stupid ways in which he calls upon “historical accuracy” in his media creations in order to let his own self off the hook for, well, everything.

As far as I’m concerned–and I accept that there are plenty of people who may disagree with me on this–historical accuracy is only valid if you are actually writing about actual history.  This could be biography or historical fiction, or even SFF set in a historical era, but unless your work is specifically set in a particular time and particular place in documented earth-time, your claims to be worrying about historical accuracy are stupid, at the very least.  And even if you are writing about a specific earth history, unless you take into account the fact that earth history is generally written by the victors, whitewashed, and otherwise represses marginalized groups, your history is bullshit.

My point is that GRR is unable to account–not for the actual historical accuracy of his work, which is, as I already proved, not even a side of the fence on which to fall in this discussion–for his position in the present, and in this historical context.  He is completely unable to fathom his own participation in the time and place in which he lives, and the incredible privilege in which his own existence and media are steeped.  Every author brings something of themselves to the table when they sit down to make a story, and unfortunately for GRR, he brings his white maleness and little else.  He has shown, time and again, that the only historical context he’s basing his work on is his own narrow interpretation of a really non-existent “medieval” period from which his world didn’t actually spring.  His Song of Ice and Fire world came from his head, like all fantasy writers, and the rape and violence and the Orientalism and the white supremacy also came from his head.

Now, since I don’t feel like talking about GRR any longer, let’s talk about some writers who actually do write with an awareness of their own historical context.  This will be a series of posts, since there’s no way I can talk about these great authors in brief.

1. Kate Elliott is primarily known for epic fantasy series–she’s written a few million words, probably, by now–which feature meticulous world building.  All of them include technology or economic systems which resemble those the reader might recognize from a particular period on Earth.  For example, in the Crossroads trilogy the first culture to whom the reader is introduced, the people of the Hundred, eat a rice-based diet, wear sandals, have a relatively warm climate, and live in houses that might remind some readers of homes in Japan.  However these people are not Japanese or Asian any more than they are the giant eagles upon which they ride, and their contemporary culture is based in a belief system which grew up over a period of possibly hundreds or thousands of years, and their philosophy of government and military reflects that.  Elliott blends characters’ points of view, the narrator’s descriptions of geography and settings, and action to let the reader in on a history and culture she has obviously thought a lot about.

Elliott is very clear that her intention when world building is to create whole places and people and systems of living.  By creating whole cultures of people of a variety of skin colors, hair colors, eye colors, statures, and other physical markers, she shows she’s aware of and accounts for her own understanding of history and her place in it.  The fantasy genre is one devoted to imagination and exploring ideas through storytelling outside of traditional worlds and world-views.  Elliott doesn’t rely on tokens or other tropes of traditionally marginalized people to advance her stories.  Whatever prejudices exist in her novels are a product of the cultures she has created; because her characters behaving in a realistic way and have complicated psychologies and motivations–being products of their fully-grounded cultures–they elicit an emotional or intellectual response from the reader concerning our modern preconceptions and prejudices.

For example, still in the Crossroads trilogy, the religious system of the Hundred incorporates a temple devoted to the Merciless One, and one of her aspects is desire.  Temple initiates engage in sexual activity with people who come to the temple.  Desire is treated as a valid and expected part of humanity; rape, when the story begins, is much less common and treated as a greater crime because men don’t have control over women’s bodies, because sex is not regulated, in the ways we expect to find in our modern patriarchal culture.  This aspect of the story may make some readers uncomfortable, for some it will be quite freeing, but not matter the reaction of the reader Elliott’s writing treats the subject with sensitivity and doesn’t rely on tropes or stereotypes to get the idea across, allowing readers to make up their minds without being antagonized by poor storytelling.  

Elliott’s characters–protagonists and supporting characters alike, are three-dimensional people in their own right; some fit the traditional masculine and feminine roles we are used to seeing in fantasy, while many do not.  One of the things that is most compelling about Elliott’s work is that those who do not fit traditional descriptions are not used to exemplify those who do.  Rather than a Brienne of Tarth, who is used to illustrate to the reader what a “real” knight is, throughout Elliott’s stories we have women who are simply warriors or fighters, with much more complicated motivations and histories, with stories of their own to live, than being the woman who will eventually need to be rescued by a man, thus advancing his character development.  Elliott uses her imagination and her empathy to find the story to tell for characters from all walks of life, all ages, all genders.  She does not use them as merely plot points.

Elliott’s stories and characters are are products of their cultures and exist in tension with the demands of those cultures.  People are at the mercy of the geography and climate in which they live.  When armies go to war, they are are not the great hordes we are used to seeing in The Lord of the Rings.  They are relatively small, only as many as can be sustained by the pre-industrial communities from which they are drawn.  If great hordes do arise, there is a measurable effect on the land and people through which they maraud; crops are not sown or harvested, trade routes falter, government and law break down.  

One of my favorite aspects of Elliott’s writing concerns when cultures meet or collide in the course of a story.  In the Crossroads series, when a marauding group of bandits and thugs springs from the very midst of the Hundred–looting, enslaving, and, yes, occasionally raping along the way–Elliott doesn’t fall back on some oddball assumptions about what happened in feudal societies during a non-existent medieval period to explain how this could happen.  She allows the world itself to show the reader how a failure in justice more than a generation ago led to a slowly growing faction of people who decided not only to take justice into their own hands, but what justice is.  As characters learn more about the situation, the reader is shown what they and the people they meet think about it, and eventually what the greater repercussions of this horde will be.  When characters perpetrate violence, or have it perpetrated against them, there are real, perceivable, realistic outcomes.  Abnormal and anti-social behavior is acknowledged, it serves a narrative purpose within the story, and is not just used for ambiance or to lazily illustrate a character.  

Throughout her writing career, Elliott has shown she is aware of how “historical accuracy” has been used and misused within fiction, and that it is important to her to create fully functioning, dynamic worlds with a multitude of people and concerns, just like the actual Medieval Earth period was, just like all Earth historical periods are.  By creating no less than four cultural groups within the Crossroads trilogy (and even more than that in the Crown of Stars series) that have separate, fully functioning socio-political systems, she has also shown that she is aware of her own identity as an interpreter of history, and a member of our shared contemporary time and place.  

She understands that our world is made up of countless cultural groups, some of whom have been left out not just of representation, but of their accomplishments and deep history simply for being not white, not Christian, not European.  Not only does Elliott not default to whiteness and using non-white groups as externalized “others” against whom to compare her dominant culture, when she writes brown and black people Elliott does not include contemporary Earth tropes and stereotypes to “explain” the people she has written.  

We’re going to leave out the way that Elliott writes her fantasy elements, because that would make for an even longer post.

To conclude, as Elliott herself has written, The Status Quo Does Not Need World Building; from that I assert that the status quo really doesn’t need a novel about it.  There are assumptions about what fantasy literature is, from those within and without the genre, based upon the people who have been allowed to create it over the past hundred years, and Elliott chooses not to reinforce those assumptions in her work.  Truly, Elliott has shown that it is only lack of imagination, lack of empathy, which keeps authors from creating characters who do not look like themselves and who do not have recourse to agency or even human decency within their stories.  Let’s support more authors like her.

Stay tuned for the next post in this “series” and keep reading diversely.

The Very Best of Kate Elliott

The Very Best of Kate Elliott is a
somewhat career-spanning collection of short fiction from an author who
generally writes multi-volume fantasy and science fiction with extensive world building
and character development.  It’s
career spanning in that the stories run the gamut of the worlds and characters
Elliott has created throughout her career, and then some.  The collection also features a very
moving introduction and four essays representative of Elliott’s views on
writing and the types of stories she creates. 

This
collection will be a joy to readers who love any of Elliott’s novels, as it is
true to the philosophy she espouses in every novel of developing whole
societies, cultures, and worlds that don’t rely on status quo settings or plots
that leave out pesky details like what happens to agrarian societies when
whole-scale war breaks out. 
Elliott finds the beautiful details in every person’s story and tells it
with a grace that lends depth and importance to characters whether they are
queens or peasants or something else entirely.  The very young and the very old alike have their own
stories, and are not relegated to supporting roles in someone else’s story arc. 

 Among
the stories in this collection are some from the Crown of Stars world, one from
the Spiritwalker world, one from the Crossroads world, and one from the Jaran
world.  Further stories are
generally modeled on a pre-industrial Earth period, whether it be a farming
village on the edge of a kingdom or a fishing village in an unnamed world.  The most powerful story, to me, was
titled “The Queen’s Garden” and is the tale—told almost as myth or folktale—of
two princesses whose matrilineal kingdom was stolen from them by their greedy
father.  Because it begins as a
folktale, one might expect the traditional plot: that one of the princes who
visits their kingdom would stand up to their father and win the kingdom back,
marry one or both princesses, etc. 
Elliott happily subverts this expectation, however, showing how women
can both be the hero of their own tales and not turn themselves into men in
order to maintain agency.  This is
an important theme that Elliott carries throughout her writing.

Elliott’s
short stories do not have quite the force that her novels and series have in
terms of prose and style, however the themes are strong and hint at worlds and
ideas yet unexplored and undiscovered. 
 As some of the stories are
a bit longer than average short story length, this collection is recommended to
fantasy lovers who usually read novels but are looking to get into short
stories.  The Very Best of Kate Elliott is of course recommended to all
lovers of her novels, and to readers interested in reading a wide range of
characters and voices.  Elliott’s
stories invoke a broad range of feelings without being sentimental, and deal
with violence without losing the humanity either of the violent or their
victims.  Lovers of Bujold, LeGuin,
K.J. Parker, and other realist fantasy will find much to love in Elliott’s
stories.