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.

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The Eternal Sky trilogy, by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth
Bear is continually proving that there is no limit to what you can write a
story about.  Having tackled space,
cyborgs, and Norse gods, she’s moved on to a captivating alt-world adventure
story taking place in a reimagined spice road landscape.  The Celadon Highway connects the
temperate empires in the East to the arid steppes and deserts of the West, each
kingdom carved not just out of the land but the sky as well.  In a twist that only Bear could
imagine, the sky changes depending upon whose kingdom one is in.

Temur
never thought himself destined for greatness, but then again, he never expected
to wake up on the battlefield surrounded by the bodies of his clan, killed in a
brutal war of succession for the Qersnyk Khaganate.  Samarkar had grown up in luxury as the daughter of the Rasan
princes, thought herself destined to live out her life within a marriage of
political necessity, until her husband died and she was shipped back to Rasa in
shame.  But instead of giving in,
she went to the Citadel and became a wizard of Tsarapeth.  United in a quest to rid the world of a
man who would rip it apart to bring back a long-dead god, Temur and Samarkar
gather a wary, weary band of outcasts and dispossessed whose lives had been
torn apart by this al-Sepehr, head of the Nameless, to try to find a way to
stop him.

The
Eternal Sky series is at its heart an adventure story—Temur and Samarkar
travel the length and breadth of their known world to accomplish the vows they
have sworn—but it is also a quiet meditation on the pull of personal
motivations and relationships, and how one decides between those greater and
smaller duties.  Bear has a knack
for creating stories in which characters who, though they be at the mercy of
outside events, are still in control of their own stories, still
three-dimensional actors, within the larger narrative.  The Eternal Sky is a compelling story,
each novel self-contained enough that the reader could start anywhere, but together
the novels bring the lives of their characters and the backdrop of their world
to startling life and presence.

Readers
who enjoy a diverse cast of characters and a story that stretches the limits of
traditional fantasy storytelling will have no trouble becoming fully immersed
in Bears wonderfully realized world. 
Those who like alt-world fantasy and variations on earth cultures will
enjoy the way this series blends history with fantasy.  Anyone who craves action and adventure
but can’t give up strong characterization will fall in love with Temur,
Samarkar, and the other characters in this series. 

Book Series: Crown of Stars, by Kate Elliott

            The Crown of Stars series—seven books in total—is a long series of long novels that escapes the curse of the long series and actually gets better at the end.  Readers of long epic fantasy series’ know all about this.  The Wheel of Time, for all its millions of devoted readers, definitely began to drop off in quality and actual story accomplished after a few installments.  Crown of Stars is also quite ambitious, which we’d expect from epic fantasy, but it’s not just because it has a large cast of characters, or a lot of world building.  Crown of Stars has a large cast of diverse, interesting characters, goes out of its way to fully develop people, religions, cultures, races and does it for each group of people introduced.  It also features a huge map, and fully developed astronomy and mathematical system.

            Now, about the plot.  Crown of Stars borrows from a fair number of tropes, but in a way that is actually useful to creating a cohesive story.  It features stories of a kingdom divided in a very Henry VIII way, an invasion by a group of “barbarian” outsiders (from the point of view of the culture being invaded, who happen to resemble Medieval Europeans, so take their opinions with a grain of salt), magical fairy-like elements, deep and twisty love stories, and a fully developed religion complete with heresies and tyrannical church.  This series was the first I’d read that showed me it was possible to model a world on a particular aspect of ours, without necessarily recreating or aping it.  We don’t have to repeat the mistakes of Medieval Europe, for instance, to interpret be influenced by it.  That’s what fiction, especially speculative fiction, is for: making your own mistakes.

            Crown of Stars is the story of a young woman, Liath, first trying to survive while being chased by dangerous magical creatures and a controlling and manipulative man of the church, then attempting to solve the mysteries of her past, then again trying to survive in a world that wants to use her once she’s unraveled the story of her past.  And if that’s not enough for you, there are numerous subplots that intertwine with each other and with Liath’s story, building in complexity and suspense over all seven books until everything comes to a head. 

            Each novel in the series has overlapping plot elements and completes a plot cycle, so there’s both plenty of anticipation for the next novel and plenty of satisfaction with the one just finished.  But let’s be honest.  It’s a big series, and not just in words.  There’s a lot to keep straight, and even in re-reading you might feel you’ll never get a handle on the whole thing.  For readers who enjoy re-reading series multiple times, and who just like the feeling of a great big unencompassable world, this series will certainly shine.  For readers in search of a little more diversity and deeper consideration of the ideas of barbarians and civilization, this series is sure to please.  Crown of Stars features not only a woman as the main character and focal point, but many strong women characters both nice and not-so-nice, but all fully developed and not stereotyped.

            I recommend Crown of Stars to readers for whom great big series like The Wheel of Time or The Sword of Truth fell flat, or for readers looking for an author to get into.  If you love Crown of Stars, you’re sure to love all of Elliott’s series, and she’s got plenty to read.  Readers who are looking for a more introspective Game of Thrones will find much to enjoy in Crown of Stars.