If you’re looking for an adventure, but no mysterious stranger has come along yet to sweep you away, let me recommend Kate Elliott’s Crossroads Trilogy. She builds a world so fantastically believable, you’ll reach for your passport each time you pick up the book, hoping that the guards at the checkpoint to the Hundred will let you pass!
The people of the Hundred have known peace for generations thanks to nine Guardians, seemingly all-powerful beings created by the gods to rule over the Hundred’s courts. An old order of reeves – men and women who soar around on their giant eagles settling disputes – help enforce the Guardians’ justice. But, as the story begins, no one has seen a Guardian for decades, and the reeves are loosing their respect and their authority. A series of attacks and murders occur, and soon an actual army (something the loosely-knit Hundred folks had only heard about in tales) comes marching from the north, destroying villages, raping women, and “cleansing” anyone who doesn’t join them. More terrifying yet, the army’s leaders are wearing Guardians’ cloaks and flying on winged horses! Are these Guardians marching on the gods’ orders, sent to make the Hundred pay for its sins? Or have the Guardians turned into rogue demons? How are the Hundred’s various peoples meant to stop the army, especially when the reeve halls no longer recognize a single commander?
Some members of the older generation remember that the founding tales also mention that an outlander would come to the rescue of the Hundred. And as a matter of fact, a whole band of outlanders have ridden into the Hundred, looking for a new home. Will one of them stop the invading army? And at what cost? Are the Hundred folk willing to fight an army led by holy figures that they’ve revered since time began? And if so, how do you kill an immortal?
I don’t need to say anything more about the story’s plot – if you’re like me, that’s all it would take to hook your interest. What I find more impressive – and ultimately the best part about the series – is the unbelievably complex world that Elliott creates. When you read through the trilogy, you don’t feel like you’re reading a novel – it’s more like you’re reading through a National Geographic piece on a distant land. What I’m trying to say: You never once doubt that the Hundred and its bordering lands are real places. As the pages turn, you learn about the multiple gods and the unique purpose that each god’s temple serves in the different villages and towns across the Hundred. You sit by a campfire and listen to such intricate folk-lore, that the stories simply must have been passed down for innumerable generations – not thought up in the mind of a single author! Currencies, measurements, customs, languages – they’re all native to the Hundred.
You meet a plethora of characters (so many that I had to jot a few down to keep them straight) – and you get to know some of them so well, that you want to send them a call later on in the day. But, you come across some interesting characters only briefly – just as you might if you were buying fruit at the market. Elliott introduces them long enough to reveal that they are deep characters, possessing their own back-story (they’re not just a prop), and you think, Okay, this guy/gal is going to be important. But then, once the character is done with his wine, he leaves the tavern and goes on with his life. More importantly, Elliott is a master of character development. You’re not presented with an entire character in the first chapter of book #1. Only eventually, as you get to know them, do you figure out how complex each character is. You find out why Joss, the handsome reeve who loves alcohol even more than the ladies (and many men) love him, is so heartbroken and reckless. And you never really get to know too much of the outlander captain Anji because he keeps his true thoughts and emotions to himself as is his people’s custom. You come to quickly realize that there is much more to Mai, whose beautiful exterior hides her superior intellect and cutting wit.
Some characters worship all gods, some mock them, while other characters from outside the Hundred swear allegiance to a monotheistic deity. In some ways, the Hundred seems like a progressive place. Men and women are treated equally, and decisions are made by councils, not single leaders like kings or emperors. There’s plenty of sex in the Hundred, since the fulfillment of lust is viewed as an act of worship to the goddess known as the Merciless One, or the Devourer. Moreover, there are plenty of men in the Hundred who are “fashioned” to be with men, while many women are “fashioned that way” and are attracted to other women. So, when the outlanders come riding in and kick out one of their own for longing after another man, the folks in the Hundred don’t understand what the problem is.
But, the Hundred isn’t a liberal’s paradise, either. Slavery is a way of life, and marriage isn’t for lovers; it’s simply a way to join two clans. One of my favorite part of the story is watching one of the character’s views on slavery evolve from never questioning its impact on the slaves (even though her very own father sold her into a marriage) to fully understanding the psychological impact of being owned, even for a supposedly “well taken care of” slave. The Hundred people are passionately xenophobic – distrustful of foreigners to the point of believing that “the Silvers” (a culture that demands their women be fully veiled and confined to the home) have horns under their turbans, and that other foreigners are simply demons disguised as humans.
In short, there’s everything you need for an epic fantasy: an imposing army, spy missions into unknown territory, non-human creatures (though Elliott forces us to question what it means to be human), power hungry temples, ancient customs, good vs. evil, with just the right dash of magic thrown into the mix. Through these tales, readers face themes that are relevant in our real lives: What type of hold do we allow custom and tradition to have on us? Is there an afterlife? How do we understand and treat people and cultures that are different from our own? What is the price of safety?
Luckily, the books are long, so you get to live in the Hundred for a while. I took me four months to read the trilogy, but that’s because I only read on my commute to and from work. Even though I wanted to race through them all, I forced myself to slow down because I didn’t want it to end!
The trilogy is published by Tor Books. The first book, Spirit Gate (722 pages) came out in 2006. Shadow Gate (792 pages) was released in 2008, and the final book Traitor’s Gate (896 pages) came out in 2009. According to this 2009 interview, Elliott said that she’s working on four more(!) books that will take place in the Hundred, though not particularly with the same characters. That was five years ago, and no new Hundred books – but it looks like she just finished up another, unrelated project, The Spiritwalker Series, so now maybe she’ll have time to get back to the Hundred!
For more of Kate Elliott’s work, check out her website: www.kateelliott.com