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Traitor's Gate by Kate Elliiott

Cover art by Michael Kahuta

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

What is the difference between science fiction and fantasy? It's a distinction often debated in fannish circles, and the debate can become quite heated. The proper classification of some books is hardly in doubt: almost everybody will agree that Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy is science fiction, and JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is fantasy. But between the two camps lies a gray area where we find things like Walter Jon Williams' Metropolitan or Jack Chalker's Soul Rider series. Forces described with the language of science and technology prove in many ways to be more akin to magic, even if they can be collected, metered and used much like electricity is in our own world. Wizards perform spells that prove to be the workings of long-lost computers which control a quantum field that was barely understood by the original creators and has become a complete mystery to the characters' present.

When I read Spirit Gate, the first volume of the Crossroads Trilogy, I simply took it for granted that the story was fantasy. We have a pre-industrial society with giant eagles big enough to carry the human beings with whom they bond, characters who can see and hear ghosts, and gods who have taken an active role in history. The cultures were more Asian than European, with such things as a cyclical calendar similar to that of traditional Chinese culture, although with the four elements of ancient Greek thought rather than the five of Chinese tradition, a difference that helped differentiate them from the run-of-the-mil extruded-book-productl fantasy novels that litter the bookstore shelves.

And then I get part way through the second volume, Shadow Gate, and I start reading the backstory of the young woman who was known only as Cornflower in the first volume. She turns out to be Kirya, a member of a nomadic people with Slavic names, rather reminiscent of the Cossacks -- and then I realize that they are in fact the Jaran and this series is taking place not in a magical version of East Asia, but on Rhui, some time after humans (including the ancestors of the Jaran) were brought there by the first Chaapali Empire, but before it was rediscovered by the second. So the gods who created the reeves' giant eagles and the Guardians must be scientists using technologies so advanced as to seem like magic to the people of the time, rather than supernatural entities, and the capabilities that the eagles and the Guardians (and their winged horses) display must be understood in technological terms rather than magical.

It's a bit of a mental lurch, but once I re-arrange my expectations accordingly, I'm back to enjoying the story, even if I am seeing certain elements in a different light. But the real story is about the people and their interactions with one another, and these people are human enough that even if some of them may in fact be artificial constructs rather than organic flesh, they still have the same basic drives that make me care about them and what happens to them. And when I get to the end, I want to read the final volume and find out what happens to them.

Traitor's Gate is unlike the first two volumes in not beginning with Marit the eagle reeve turned Guardian. Instead, it starts with Keshad, whom we first met back in Spirit Gate as a young trader who is trying to amass the necessary wealth to buy himself and his sister out of debt-bondage. In the end of Shadow Gate he was going into the Sirniakan Empire on a trading voyage with Eliar of the Ri Amarah, a trading voyage by which he hoped to finally gain his sister's freedom in fact after the temple took her back on the grounds that the slave with which he bought her freedom was not his to sell.

What was supposed to be a routine trading trip has turned into a nightmare. The Sirniakan Empire is in the throes of civil war and the city where they're quartered is under lockdown. Kesh is able to get out of the segregated compound where the traders are kept apart from the regular people of the Empire only because he converted to the worship of their god Beltak Who Rules Alone, and thus must be allowed to go to a temple to worship. Although he is taken under guard, it still enables him to find out what is going on -- the rebel faction has won and deposed the Emperor, and the new Emperor is executing a blood purge of all his slain kinsman's household and their followers.

Suddenly Kesh and Eliar have a new assignment, to accompany a unit of Qin soldiers who are taking an elderly woman and her veiled attendants to the Hundred. As they travel, they soon learn that she is the mother of Anji, the Qin nobleman who has made a place for himself and his troops in the Hundred with their martial prowess, defeating the bandits who have made life impossible for the ordinary folk and thus being looked to as leaders.

Back in the Hundred, life has become complicated in Anji's household. His lovely wife Mei, daughter of a merchant in one of the villages the Qin conquered on their eastern borders, has become fast friends with Eliar's sister Miravia. But their family has decided that Miravia shall be married off to an old man who has already buried several wives and who is known to run a very strict traditional Ru Amarah household, where the women are kept completely secluded from outsiders and do not even allowed to interact with unrelated males within their household. The very thought of living in such a situation is terrifying to her, and she is desperately trying to find some way to escape that fate.

The solution she hits upon is to create the appearance that her reputation has been irreparably damaged so that this old man will not accept her as a wife. To do that, she decides to pay a visit to the strictly forbidden temple of the Devourer, goddess of love, war and death. Because the priests and priestesses of that temple function as a sort of sacred prostitutes, the temple of the Devourer is regarded with disgust by the more strait-laced outsiders -- even Anji, who has otherwise shown a strong commitment to assimilating his people into their new home rather than being perpetual outsiders, has forbidden his household to ever visit.

Which means that Mei has to choose between loyalty to her friend and obedience to her husband's direct request -- just as Anji's mother arrives in the Hundred with her entourage. Suddenly what would have been a very fraught situation in any case turns deadly -- Anji is angry at Mei for disobedience to his direct order just as his mother is pressuring him to divorce Mei and wed the sister of his cousin, the new Emperor. Which means that it is going to be that much harder to stand against his mother for the woman he loves.

Meanwhile, the battle against the corrupt Guardians and their mortal armies continues. As in the first two volumes, the author remains unsparing in her portrayal of the horrors of war. There is no glossing over just what the movement of these vast armies means for the civilian populace, and particularly for its most vulnerable members, the children. Even when people are fighting for a good cause and the alternative is unending horror, innocent people still are getting hurt and killed, and often don't have a chance to fight back.

However, one huge thing has changed -- word is getting out about how a Guardian can be killed. The very fact that they can be killed is yet another reminder for the reader that we are reading a science fiction novel, however much it may look like fantasy on the surface, and that the Guardians are not supernatural entities with unlimited power, but beings that live within the constraints of the natural world and thus have vulnerabilities that can be exploited if one knows their secrets. Since the precise nature of the mechanism by which one can kill a Guardian is a big element of the plot and particularly the conclusion, I feel uncomfortable about revealing it, much as I'd enjoy speculating about the mechanism by which it appears to work and why the unknown alien scientists and engineers who created it would set it up that way -- was it done deliberately, as a limitation on the powers of the Guardians like their own way of policing themselves, or was it a happy accident, an oversight that the designers never imagined to be a vulnerability.

In any case, it's pretty clear that the unknown designers of the Guardians, who have since come to be revered as gods by the people of the Hundred, never imagined that a whole faction of Guardians could go awry and thus subvert the judgment mechanism they provided. The designers seem to have simply assumed that of course any Guardian who began to go corrupt would be recognized as such right away and confronted by a quorum of the other Guardians. The idea that corruption might not necessarily be obvious, that it could masquerade as a heightened desire for justice, for order, seems to have escaped them.

And as we learn, that was exactly how things went wrong. The very one of the Guardians who should've been expected to be the most steadfast, the most trustworthy, instead proves to be the one from whom the corruption grew. Not because of any of the obvious routes by which people become corrupt, such as desire for wealth or for power over others, but because of a far more subtle character flaw which allowed that Guardian to believe that they were still fighting for the right and the good even as they were becoming a tyrant rather than an upholder of the Law upon which the society of the Hundred was founded.

The novel ends with the immediate threats that have hung over the entire trilogy broken, but it is clear that the situation in the Hundred is still very much in flux. It's uncertain what role the Guardians will -- or even can -- have in the future of the Hundred so long as Anji regards them as demons to be destroyed, and will probably pass that attitude on to his heirs. And perhaps even more importantly, how will the society of the Hundred by affected by the rise of a strongman as leader in their culture? Until now their government has been relatively weak, almost libertarian in nature. Law, as inscribed upon Law Rock, has been the primary source of rule, and both Guardians and eagle reeves were seen as agents of its enforcement rather than rulers in their own right. Tradition and clan elders have also had a strong role in maintaining the social order, but again, they were seen as primarily supportive, rather than as controlling. But now we have someone who is looked to as a leader, as someone who gives orders and makes things happen, rather than merely interpreting a traditional body of law.

Kate Elliott has stated that more Crossroads novels are under contract, so it's quite possible that some of these questions will be answered in future volumes. It's quite possible that the storyline could move forward several generations, rather than taking up immediately after the ending of this story.

Review posted February 20, 2011.

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