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Shadow Gate by Kate Elliott

Cover art by Michael Kaluta

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

At the end of Spirit Gate, the land known as the Hundred was under attack by bandits who operated in groups sufficiently large as to be beyond the ability of the local militias to cope. One of these attacks was defeated by the intervention of the Qin soldiers who had accompanied Anji into exile after it became politically impossible for him to remain in Qin lands. As a result, the local leadership made an agreement with Anji and his Qin forces that would be to the longterm advantage of the Qin in a way that posed severe long-term social risks to the status of the locals.

However, in this volume, Ms. Elliott does not immediately pick up the storyline that rapidly changing situation. Instead, she takes us back in time to a point not too far from where Spirit Gate started. In it, the eagle reeve Marit, one of an order tasked with keeping the law of the Hundred, was captured by bandits operating under the direction of a mysterious Lord Rodos, then killed by a priestess of the goddess known as the Merciless One.

Having the first point of view character killed off so soon after beginning the book was a shock to me, enough that it came very close to putting me off the book. But the world was just interesting enough that I kept reading, and was steadily sucked in to the point that I finished it eager to read the next volume.

And now Marit is back. She's certain she died -- her memories on that matter are vivid enough that she's sure it wasn't just a dream or hallucination, and as a reeve she has sufficient experience with wounds to know it was a fatal one she sustained. Yet here she is lying on a Guardian altar, naked except for the white cloak wrapped around her. Once she overcomes her initial shock, she realizes that she has broken the boundaries and violated the sanctity of a Guardian altar. It matters not one whit that it was not willful, that she was brought here rather than coming here under her own power and by her own volition: she has been present where she has no right to be, and as such must face the consequences.

So, being dutiful about such things, Marit heads off to Clan Hall to report herself in violation of one of the most basic laws of the Hundred. Except when she arrives, nobody can see or hear her. She wanders through the Hundred in a desperate effort to get somebody to acknowledge her presence, and begins to wonder if she's some kind of ghost, or if she even has any real existence when she cannot get a single human being to acknowledge her existence. Does her own self-perception of existence prove her reality when she gets no validation from others? She's a practical sort of person, not a philosophical one, but it's really bothering her.

And then she awakens once again on the Guardian altar and the cycle begins anew. Except time has clearly jumped forward during the gap in her consciousness, which makes her even more puzzled about what is really going on.

After a few cycles of this, a mysterious winged horse shows up and nuzzles her. The horse refuses to be dissuaded, and they soon work out a sort of partnership. It's not quite like that she had with her old eagle, but after the horse warns her of danger, she names it Warning. And slowly she begins to connect these things with the old story of the creation of the Guardians and she realizes that the Guardians haven't disappeared at all, for she herself has become one of them.

She's no more than made that discovery but everything is torn apart anew. She encounters an escaped slave from the encampments of the bandits, who tells of the horrors that are perpetrated by the other cloak-wearers and those under them. Yes, something has gone terribly wrong with the Guardians, something even worse than them all vanishing and leaving the Hundred with only mortal judges to dispense justice. For when those who are sworn to uphold the law instead substitute cruelty and brutality, who is there to appeal to? It's a new variation on the old question of who will watch the watchmen.

And thus we come up to the point at which Spirit Gate ended and begin to move into new territory. Now that the Qin have found themselves a home, Anji's wife Mai is doing her best to settle in. As she befriends Miravia, a young woman of the Ri Amarah, often called the Silvers because of their custom of wearing silver bracelets upon their arms, she becomes painfully aware of the peril of failing to integrate into the land where they have settled and truly become at home. Although the Ri Amarah have lived in the Hundred for over a century, they have remained outsiders and as such have become targets for the hostility of the locals in times of trouble. Some of Miravia's own relatives have had to flee pogroms with little more than the shirts on their backs.

So Mai begins thinking about how to successfully assimilate the Qin into the culture of the Hundred, so that in generations to come they will not be marked out for hostility and violence as the Ri Amarah so frequently are, their households attacked and destroyed, their people murdered or forced to flee as refugees. Most obviously, the Ri Amarah have kept themselves steadfastly apart, marrying only among themselves and following their own customs without any concession whatsoever to those of the Hundred. So Mai determines that the Qin soldiers must marry local women, and do so by the ceremonies the locals understand, and that there must be an orderly procedure for it so that eligible young women can present themselves without fear of being kidnapped or ill-used.

Not surprising in a land torn by strife, it is not long before a stream of women come to the Qin settlement. Some are brought by male relatives who see an opportunity to make an advantageous alliance with these mysterious and powerful newcomers, in hopes that when the Qin begin to exercise their power more fully over the Hundred, it will not fall too heavily upon their families. But many of the hopeful young women are members of families torn apart by the fighting, with little more than the clothes on their backs and whatever skills they've learned. It's a painful situation, especially since there are far more women than potential husbands and many of the women most desperate for a match have the least likelihood of actually making one, for the simple reason that they have so painfully little to bring to the table.

Then there is Keshad, who in Spirit Gate thought he had finally bought his and his sister's freedom through two particularly valuable prizes he acquired on his last trading mission for his former master. He and his sister had become victims of the corruption of the bond system, by which what was originally intended as a temporary corrective for wrongdoers and the indigent became little better than the outright slavery practiced by neighboring countries. Even as he was in the process of arranging the purchase of his own freedom, his master tried to trick him into additional debt that would be used to trap him by making sure the charges accumulated faster than he could pay them off, and it was only by spending some of his precious seed money for their new life that he was able to cut that off and gain his freedom in fact.

And now he is accosted by the agents of the temple of the Merciless One, to whom his sister's bond had belonged, telling him that the slave with which he bought her freedom was not in fact his to sell. He protests that he found her in the desert in no condition to take care of herself and had no reason to believe that finder's rights would not apply. However, the temple servants are adamant that the transaction is null and void and his sister must now return to the service of the Merciless One, her debts remaining unsatisfied.

So Kesh and Bai must part ways, while Kesh desperately seeks some new way to secure the fortune that will buy his sister's freedom for good. And Bai is sent by the priestess on an even stranger mission to discover just what is going on to the north of them, where the forces of the enemy are ravaging the land. A mission that quickly turns nightmarish as they rescue a large group of children from duress vile only to have to masquerade as slave traders delivering them into the hands of the dreaded cloak who rules the other cloaks. A mission that may enable them to turn the tables on the cloaks, but Bai's having to make things up as she goes with no solid intelligence on the situation, and she's not really sure how far she can trust Mai's uncle Shai, but has no choice but to trust him if she's going to have any hope of success.

And the slave with which Kesh thought to buy his sister's freedom? In Spirit Gate it was pretty clear that she was Mai's lost maid, who had formerly belonged to Mai's troubled uncle Girish. She had been called Cornflower because of her pale blue eyes, following the custom of that region of giving slaves unnames to further mark them off as unpersons (the technical term is social death, and persons wishing to learn more about the phenomenon may want to investigate Orlando Patterson's classic study Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study )

Now at last we learn her true history: her name is Kirya, and she belongs to a nomadic people with Slavic names, vaguely reminiscent of the early Cossacks before the tsars co-opted them as elite enforcers. Her tribe has become weakened by serial misfortune, and they are trying to figure out how to survive in the face of further depredations by a neighboring tribe who is trying to bully them into a disadvantageous marriage deal which could very well result in their being entirely engulfed by the stronger tribe. Even as they try to negotiate a more advantageous arrangement, their encampment is attacked and their children, the future of the tribe, are kidnapped away. Kirya rides off to rescue them, but the deal she makes for their freedom quickly turns nightmarish, for she never thought to make sure that an outlander caravan-master understood the year of service she was offering the same way one of her people did.

As I am reading this section, I have one of those moments in which my understanding of a book is completely transformed. Unto this point I'd been reading the Crossroads series as a fantasy along the lines of the Crown of Stars series but set somewhere in a fantastical version of east Asia. As soon as I recognize Kirya's people as the Jaran, I realize that this is not taking place in a typical fantasy world, but on the planet Rhui, no doubt at some time after the ancestors of the Jaran were transported there from Earth by the first Chapalii empire that left the Jaran temple on Rhui which was visited by the pilgrims in Jaran who were in fact secret agents, but before the Chapalii returned to place their interdict over it and later make it part of Charles Sorensen's dukedom.

There's a long tradition of science fiction that has the superficial appearance of fantasy, with the technology being mistaken for magic and aliens for supernatural entities, in keeping with Sir Arthur C. Clarke's famous aphorism "Any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic to the unintiated." Even in Spirit Gate there were hints here and there of civilizations gone by, leaving only traces such as roads of extraordinary smoothness and durability that were still used by caravans long after their creators were forgotten. However, that alone does not necessarily mean a science fictional universe, since a fantasy set in one or another fictional version of medieval Europe could have their equivalent of the Roman roads. But the story of the creation of the giant eagles suddenly looks different in retrospect now that we know we are dealing with a science fictional world: it is easy to think of the gods who formed them as being in fact biotechnicians, rather like Kitty Ping in Dragonsdawn who transformed the native fire lizards of Pern into the giant dragons who partnered with humans in order to battle against Thread. And as we learn more about the Guardians in this novel, it becomes easy to reinterpret the lore of them as remembered in the Hundred into science fictional terms: no doubt they are some form of biological construct, imprinting the memories and personality of the deceased fighter for justice upon an android body with powers that will appear supernatural to the mortal humans who appeal to them for justice.

However, Kirya's backstory leaves us with one very interesting question: did she actually experience death in the medical sense, as opposed to merely social death, and if so, at what point? It is clear that Marit experienced clinical death when she was stabbed, but there is never any point at which it is unambiguously clear that Kirya went through the biological processes of death, as opposed to simply giving in to despair so profound that it feels like dying as a result of being systematically stripped of her personhood, first losing her bow and arrows, then the mirror by which a woman of her people distinguish between truth and illusion, and finally all dignity and hope.

Still, it is a small point, one that can be overlooked for the simple reason that the storytelling is so masterful that we are willing to chalk up the ambiguity to the use of an unreliable narrator for this section of the novel. Even after Kirya is rescued by the kindly envoy (priest of the messenger god Ilu) who is in fact an uncorrupted Guardian, she is still weak from her ordeal and seeing things through the lens of the extensive psychological damage she's endured as a result of being physically and mentally abused by a series of harsh masters. Thus it comes as little surprise that as soon as she is given the instruments of a Guardian's power, she uses them to exercise vengeance, hunting down and slaying the men of Anji's force who abused her.

Thus her storyline intersects with that of Mai and Miravia, as she forces her way into the compound of Miravia's family compound in order to extract vengeance against one of the Qin soldiers who are acting as Mai's escorts during the visit. She does so with such violence that the physical plant of the family compound is badly damaged, right into the room where Mai and Miravia are meeting. The result is outrage among the Ri Amarah, not that Miravia was placed in physical danger, but that she, and particularly her hair, have been exposed to the view of male outsiders, and thus that her reputation has been compromised. Thus we get a harsh reminder that while the Ri Amarah may seem enlightened in their complete rejection of any form of slavery or involuntary servitude, even for correctional purposes, their attitudes toward women are very similar to those of the repressive Sirniakan Empire, who keep their women locked away in purdah.

And that is the great strength of Ms. Elliott's worldbuilding in the Crossroads series: nothing is ever completely black and white. All the cultures have their strengths and flaws, their reaching for the light and their descents into the darkness. And there is no sparing of the horrors of the consequences brought about by the descent into darkness of individuals and organizations. For instance, many writers dealing with terrible times often create worlds that seem to be demographically skewed toward adults, with the children either invisible or missing altogether: in my review of Harry Turtledove's In the Beginning I commented on how the existence of young children can only be inferred through such things as one of the major characters being a third-grade teacher, and I wondered whether the almost-complete invisibility of children in the narrative was to avoid having to deal with the horrors of what happens to children when situations become truly desperate and even adults are starving in truth. But there is no sidestepping of such things in the Crossroads series, and in both Spirit Gate and this volume we get some visceral portrayals of the consequences of the especial vulnerability of children to harm, not just because their smaller bodies have fewer resources to carry them through lean times, but also because their minor status leaves them dependent upon adults, and if they are bereft of the adults who would have natural reason to care for them as people, they can easily fall into the clutches of those who would regard them as things to be exploited.

Although Shadow Gate ends in its moment of triumph and transformation, it is clear that the story is not yet over, that there must be a confrontation with Lord Rodos and his corrupt Guardians and a final reckoning. Thus it is with considerable excitement that I'm looking forward to reading the third volume of Crossroads, Traitor's Gate.

Review posted August 29, 2010.

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