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Spirit Gate by Kate Elliott

Cover art by Michael Kaluta

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Once the Hundred was a peaceful land in which justice was kept by two major groups: the eagle reeves who apprehended wrongdoers and the Guardians who judged at the assizes courts scattered about the land. The people were prosperous and happy and generally respected the law as just.

But in the past two generations things began to change. The wealthy and powerful have increasingly been warping the observance of the letter of the law to their benefit while trampling on its spirit, particularly the laws related to debt bondage. The eagle reeves and the magnificent raptors to which they are bonded are no longer respected, but in many places are only grudgingly obeyed. And the Guardians have ceased to appear at the assizes courts, leaving the role of judge entirely to ordinary mortals. Although a few very elderly people claim to recall childhood encounters with Guardians at the assizes courts, age and its infirmities has made those memories suspect. Many people question whether the Guardians ever really existed, or if they were nothing more than a figure of speech, a ritualistic way of referring to wandering holy men of some sort who functioned as judges at particularly difficult cases which needed someone with no ties to the local community.

This is the situation which prevails at the opening of this new fantasy trilogy, as the impetuous young reeve Joss complains to his partner Marit about the resistance he has encountered in his efforts to fight the moral decay of the land. After some discussion he decides to investigate just what happened to the Guardians, and heads for one of their sacred altars, a place completely taboo for ordinary mortals. Although Marit hesitates, she follows him because as the senior reeve on patrol she feels responsible for him.

The find the place deserted, the only evidence of prior habitation a desiccated skeleton with injuries that could only be the result of violence or a fall from a great height. Horrified both by the evidence of violence against one of these legendary immortal beings and that they must face the consequences of their sacrilege, they split up to report it, Marit to a nearby temple, Joss to the more distant Copper Hall, one of the formal bases of the eagle reeves.

But Marit never makes it. The temple has been overrun by a band of thugs too well organized to be ordinary bandits. Captured, she thinks she has the means of escape in the form of a temple servant who might be persuaded to cut the ropes binding her -- until the girl instead fatally stabs Marit and then herself.

In this scene Kate Elliott is taking a considerable risk. On one hand, if a novel is going to deal with war and social upheaval, it is generally good to make that clear to the reader upfront, generally by having a character be killed or significantly maimed within the first few chapters. On the other hand, killing a viewpoint character with whom the reader has started to identify can sufficiently shock the reader that they are now wary of becoming too invested in any given character lest the author kill that one off as well. Instead of becoming more deeply invested in the story, the reader pulls back and holds the characters at arms' length to avoid being shocked in that manner a second time. I know that I had significant trouble getting involved in the movie The Abyss after the submarine crew we first encounter are killed off -- as soon as the next group of characters appear, I was wondering if they would also be killed off just as soon as I started liking them.

The author also takes a fairly significant risk in the next chapter by jumping forward nineteen years rather than picking up Joss's thread immediately after Marit's death. In the years that have passed Joss has been investigating other Guardian altars, to the point it's pretty much an open secret that he's breaking bounds on a regular basis. Furthermore, he's been drinking heavily. Not enough to become a complete lush, but certainly enough that it is bringing him to the attention of his superiors, and not in a good way.

And the situation in society at large has continued to deteriorate. The attacks have gone from isolated incidents to a continual pattern, and the reeve Halls are chronically under-stength and rapidly losing their ability to deal with the deteriorating situation.

Just as we are getting caught up with that, off we go to a distant land, its people under occupation by the warrior Qin, a people who conquored the former rulers of the area and now rule with a rod of iron. People who speak out against them, or even just annoy them, are executed publicly in slow and agonizing ways. Thus when the lovely young Mai attracts the attention of the local Qin commander, her father dares not gainsay him. The only consolation is Anji's intent to make her his actual wife rather than merely a concubine, and thus cannot casually discard her if he becomes bored with her.

Not to mention that it gives her an honorable opportunity to get out of the dysfunctional environment of her father's house, full of bitterness and resentment endlessly turned inward. That goes double when her new husband suddenly gets marching orders that take him far from the dusty village that has been Mai's entire world.

Anji has a secret -- he not entirely Qin. His mother was a sister of their var (king) who made a dynastic marriage into the household of the Emperor of the Sirniakan Empire, a monotheistic and polygamous culture that is vaguely reminiscent of Ottoman Turkey, yet are not a simplistic cribbing -- the worship of Beltak Who Reigns Alone is most decidedly not a crystal-dragon Islam. Like the Turkish Sultans, the Sirniakan Emperors have a tradition of slaughtering all their brothers and half-brothers upon ascending the throne, in order to eliminate potential rival claimants. When the old Emperor began to favor another son, Anji's mother sent her son to live in the Qin court, where he was able to rise to significant authority.

But now the Qin are allying with the Sirniakans, which means that the issue of Anji's contined existence has become a diplomatic issue. Because the var does not wish to hand his nephew over to be executed, Anji will now be sent on a mission that will take him to a distant land, one they hope to be far beyond the reach of the Emperor and his secret police, the Red Hounds. So off the entire company of Qin go on a forced march through deserts to a distant land where Anji may be able to find safety.

That land is of course the Hundred, and Anji's Qin force arrives just in time to deal with an attack by the bandits who have been troubling the lands. Fearsome the bandits may be to the people of the Hundred whose only defenses are their militias, they are little match for the honed skills and stern military discipline of the Qin, whose style of fighting put one in mind of the Mongol hordes even if their garments and hairstyles seem more reminiscent of the figures of the Terra Cotta Army left behind by an ancient Chinese emperor.

The response of the local elite to this sudden rescue is hardly surprising, but doubtless full of long-term peril for the culture of the Hundred. Although preferable to violent conquest and the slaughter which generally accompanies it, the process of elite replacement which generally follows the appeal of weakened local elites to a militarily powerful nomadic culture for protection often means the substantial loss of status and of traditional rights and liberties on the part of the local ethnic groups. One need only look at the history of the final decline of the Western Roman Empire and the replacement of Roman elites with barbarian nobility to see the decline in the status of the peasantry once their overlords were not merely different from them in degree, but in actual kind.

And we need only look at the story of Keshad the merchant to see the kinds of abuses that are already being perpetrated against the weak and vulnerable by the native elite of the Hundred. When bond-owners were allowed to add so-called reasonable costs of upkeep to their servants debts but there is no mechanism to verify that the charges are indeed reasonable -- or even real -- it became a racket by which endless petty or even outright bogus charges are piled upon a debt slave's record in order to ensure it will be impossible to ever catch up. It is only by some very shrewd trading that Kesh is able to secure his freedom and that of his sister, and even then his former master nearly tricks him back into bondage through additional petty charges.

Now if the native elite are abusing the rules in this way to keep their fellows in perpetual bondage and be able to unjustly expropriate their labor power ad infinatum, how much more likely is an elite of alien ethnic origin to do so? But when people's backs are to the wall, they're not likely to be thinking about the long-term social and political consequences of the actions they're taking in order to secure their short-term safety. After all, in the long run we're all dead.

All in all, it's a strong set-up of a very complex social pressure-cooker that promises to explode in some very interesting ways over the volumes to come.

Review posted August 8, 2010.

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