Review: The Keeper’s Six by Kate Elliott

Review: The Keeper’s Six by Kate ElliottThe Keeper's Six by Kate Elliott
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 208
Published by Tordotcom on January 17, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Kate Elliott's action-packed The Keeper's Six features a world-hopping, bad-ass, spell-slinging mother who sets out to rescue her kidnapped son from a dragon lord with everything to lose.
There are terrors that dwell in the space between worlds.
It’s been a year since Esther set foot in the Beyond, the alien landscape stretching between worlds, crossing boundaries of space and time. She and her magical travelling party, her Hex, haven’t spoken since the Concilium banned them from the Beyond. But when she wakes in the middle of the night to her son’s cry for help, the members of her Hex are the only ones she can trust to help her bring him back from wherever he has been taken.
Esther will have to risk everything to find him. Undercover and hidden from the Concilium, she and her Hex will be tested by dragon lords, a darkness so dense it can suffocate, and the bones of an old crime come back to haunt her.

My Review:

There’s a popular image in science fiction – fostered by pretty much all of Star Trek (apropos of yesterday’s book) where Earth and Earth humans seem to be the center of the galaxy no matter how many other races and species might populate it.

(And now I’m wondering if that attitude might have been at least part of the reason why Star Trek: Enterprise didn’t do so well. Because it showed us being on the back foot and under someone else’s thumb. I seriously digress.)

But in fantasy, when Earth gets connected to the rest of the ‘verse, whatever that ‘verse might be, we’re often considered a backward place whose population can’t be trusted to accept that we’re not alone, we’re not on top, and we don’t have anything like a manifest destiny at all.

We’re a protectorate – or at least a protected world of some kind. Because most of us can’t handle the truth that is out there and that we’re not in charge of it and never would be.

That’s the situation in the Wayward Children series, particularly in its most recent entry, Lost in the Moment and Found. And it’s very much the case in Ilona Andrews’ Innkeeper Chronicles, which the universe of The Keeper’s Six rather strongly resembles – and not just for that.

Daniel Green is a Keeper. Certainly his mother Esther and his spouse Kai would both agree. But in the context of this universe, being a Keeper is a specific and rather uncommon thing to be. Keepers maintain Keeps, and Keeps are the structures that straddle the line between the realm of that place’s “real” world and the dangerous and limitless Beyond that links the worlds together.

The Keeps and their Keepers are essential to maintaining trade routes between the worlds. But Keepers themselves don’t generally travel. Trade is conducted by special groups of talented magic users called Hexes because there are six specific talents required to navigate the Beyond. More than six in any single group invites death and destruction. Less is theoretically possible but likely to get itself killed because the group doesn’t have the necessary when the feces hits the oscillating device.

Esther Green is the Lantern, or light maker, of the freelance Hex that operates out of Daniel’s Keep. But she’s also Daniel’s mother. So when she gets a call that he’s been kidnapped, she drops everything – including the restriction against her Hex returning to the Beyond for ten years – to ride to his rescue.

A rescue that is going to be fraught with even more danger than Esther initially imagined – and she imagined a LOT.

But as Esther and the rest of her Hex get back together to storm the one place they’re not supposed to return to, we get to see just how this world does and doesn’t work, we get introduced to a fascinating group of people and an even more fascinating kind of magic.

While Esther has to go head-to-head and toe-to-toe with obstreperous bureaucrats, nefarious smugglers and villainous slave traders while chasing down old clues and new betrayals on her quest to rescue her son from the dragon who thinks that he’s running the show AND Esther.

He’s not. He just doesn’t know it – yet.

Escape Rating A-: Like the author’s previous novella, Servant Mage, The Keeper’s Six introduces us to a world that is much larger than the relatively small slice we get. Howsomever, very much unlike that previous book, The Keeper’s Six feels like it is just the right length for this story. It would be fantastic to have more, and there are certainly hints in what we have that there could be a more at some future point – but we don’t need that more to feel like this story doesn’t come to a lovely and satisfactory conclusion – because it absolutely does.

But this universe is fascinating and seems to have so much more to explore and I’d love to go back. To the point where this is my second reading of the book. I read this for a Library Journal review during the summer and liked it so much that I wanted to visit the world again and liked it even more on the second trip.

Part of what made me pick this back up again was that Esther would fit right into Never Too Old To Save the World, a collection of stories about people in midlife – or a bit later – who get called to be the ‘Chosen One’ for fantasy or SFnal worlds and how their change in fate melds and conflicts – sometimes at the same time – with the life they have already built.

(Never Too Old To Save the World will be out next month. I’ve already read it and it’s wonderful. Review to come!)

Esther is in her mid-60s in The Keeper’s Six. She’s been part of a Hex for most of her adult life, leading expeditions into untracked places, facing untold dangers, never knowing whether she’ll make it back or not. She’s addicted to the adrenaline of the work but aware that her days at it are numbered. The mind and spirit may be willing but time is taking its toll. Her quest has her between the proverbial rock and the opposing hard place. A dragon has kidnapped her son, and what that dragon wants in return is her son’s spouse and the co-parent of their four children.

This dragon eats books – literally not figuratively. But when he does, people – not necessarily humans but people – arise out of nowhere in the midst of his hoard as living representations of the books he’s consumed. I’m amazed and appalled in equal measure – and so is Esther.

There’s just so much going on in The Keeper’s Six. The way the Beyond is stable and unstable at the same time, keeps the Hex on their toes and the reader guessing what will come next. The juxtaposition of the Hex’ utter trust in each other with their interpersonal conflicts makes every situation precarious.

That there are wheels within wheels spinning around their suspension, this quest, the dragon’s questionable motives and their own group dynamics keeps all the plates spinning in their air in a way that kept me riveted through both readings.

The icing on this lovely little cake was that Esther is Jewish and that it wasn’t just window dressing. Her religion and her practice of it mattered both to the story and to the way she conducted herself within it. (That representation also mattered to me on a personal level.) That there is just a touch of romantic possibility between Esther and the dragon’s lieutenant, a man who seems to be the embodiment of the 14th Century Judeo-Persian poet Shahin who wrote about Queen Esther, the biblical queen for whom Esther Green was named provided just the right amount of rueful sweetness in the midst of all the danger and the necessary and important derring do required to fix it.

On top of everything else that made The Keeper’s Six so much fun was the way that it seemed to link to so many other wonderful books. Not just the previously mentioned Innkeeper Chronicles by Ilona Andrews, Never Too Old to Save the World and Lost in the Moment and Found by Seanan McGuire, but also Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune and even a bit of The Merchant Princes by Charles Stross. Portal fantasy seems to be having a moment these days, and I’m absolutely here for it. Because I still want my own door to open.

In the end The Keeper’s Six was a terrific story set in a world that I’d love to visit again. But if that never happens I’ll still be very satisfied with the trip I did get to take.

Review: Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms edited by John Joseph Adams

Review: Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms edited by John Joseph AdamsLost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms by John Joseph Adams, James L. Cambias, Becky Chambers, Kate Elliott, C.C. Finlay, Jeffrey Ford, Theodora Goss, Darcie Little Badger, Jonathan Maberry, Seanan McGuire, An Owomoyela, Dexter Palmer, Cadwell Turnbull, Genevieve Valentine, Carrie Vaughn, Charles Yu, E. Lily Yu, Tobias S. Buckell
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: action adventure, fantasy, horror, science fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Grim Oak Press on March 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From the legends of Atlantis, El Dorado, and Shangri-La to classic novels such as King Solomon’s Mine, The Land That Time Forgot, and The Lost World, readers have long been fascinated by the idea of lost worlds and mythical kingdoms.
Read short stories featuring the discovery of such worlds or kingdoms―stories where scientists explore unknown places, stories where the discovery of such turns the world on its head, stories where we’re struck with the sense of wonder at realizing that we don’t know our world quite as well as we’d thought.
Featuring new tales by today's masters of SF&F:
Tobias S. BuckellJames L. CambiasBecky ChambersKate ElliottC.C. FinlayJeffrey FordTheodora GossDarcie Little BadgerJonathan MaberrySeanan McGuireAn OwomoyelaDexter PalmerCadwell TurnbullGenevieve ValentineCarrie VaughnCharles YuE. Lily Yu

My Review:

Here there be dragons – or so say the old maps. Or so they say the old maps say – although not so much as people think they did.

Just the same, once upon a time the map of the ‘real’ world used to have more blank spaces in it. Long distance travel was difficult and time-consuming, long distance communication was an impossible dream, life was short and the road was too long to even be imagined. But speaking of imagining, I imagine that every place’s known and unknown stretches were different – but in the way back each city, country, people or location only had so much reach and stretch.

And then there was the era of European exploration and eventually industrialization. For good or ill, and quite frequently ill, those blank places on the map got smaller and were filled in. Which didn’t stop and probably downright inspired a whole library’s worth of stories about imaginary places that might exist whether on – or in – this planet or those nearby.

But as the terra become increasingly cognita, the well of those stories dried up. Which does not mean that the urge to explore what might be beyond the farthest horizon has in any way faded.

This is a collection intended to feed that human impulse to go where no one has gone before – and report back about it before we invade it with, well, ourselves. Some of the stories that explore that next frontier are fantasy, some are science fiction, and a few trip over that line from fantasy into horror.

And they’re all here, vividly described to make the reader want to be there. Or be extremely grateful that they are NOT.

Escape Rating B: Like nearly all such collections, Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms has some hits, some misses and one or two WTF did I just read? in a convenient package for exploration.

Let’s get the WTF’ery out of the way so we can move on to the good stuff. The two stories that were set in strange hotels, Comfort Lodge, Enigma Valley and Hotel Motel Holiday Inn just did not land for me at all. The second made a bit more sense than the first but neither worked for me. Of course, YMMV on both or either of those particular trips.

Three stories were misses – at least from my perspective. They weren’t bad, they just didn’t quite live up to their premise. Or something like that. The Light Long Lost at Sea was a bit too in medias res. There’s a world there with lots of interesting backstory but what we got was more of a teaser than a story with a satisfying ending. The Expedition Stops for the Evening at the Foot of the Mountain Pass had some of that same feel, like there was huge setup for the story somewhere else and we weren’t getting it. But we needed it. The Return of Grace Malfrey is one that had a fascinating premise that kind of fizzled out.

One story in the collection hit my real-o-meter a bit too sharply. That was Those Who Have Gone. It does get itself into the “did I find a hidden civilization or was I dreaming?” thing very, very well, but the way it got there was through a young woman on a scary desert trip with her 30something boyfriend who she is rightfully extremely afraid of. That part was so real it overwhelmed the fantasy place she fell into.

There were a bunch of stories that I liked as I was reading them, but just didn’t hit the top of my scale. They are still good, still enjoyable, and hit the right note between teasing their premise and satisfying it. In no particular order, these were Down in the Dim Kingdoms, An Account, by Dr. Inge Kuhn, of the Summer Expedition and Its Discoveries, Endosymbiosis and There, She Didn’t Need Air to Fill Her Lungs.

Last, but very much not least, the stories I plan to put on my Hugo Ballot next year, because they were utterly awesome. The Cleft of Bones by Kate Elliott, a story about slavery, revolution and rebirth as seen through the eyes of an absolutely fascinating character. The Voyage of Brenya by Carrie Vaughn, which is a story about gods and heroes and the way that stories turn into myths and legends. Out of the Dark by James L. Cambias, one of two space opera stories, this time about a corporate hegemonies, a salvage crew consisting of lifelong rivals, and a pre/post spacefaring civilization in which Doctor Who’s Leela would have been right at home.

Three stories were utter gems from start to finish. Pellargonia: A Letter to the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology by Theodora Goss, which consists entirely of a letter written to the afore-mentioned journal by three high school students who took the founding principles of the journal – that imaginary anthropology could create real countries – and ran with it all the way into Wikipedia, the nightly news, and a civil war that has captured one of their fathers somewhere that never should have existed in the first place.

The Orpheus Gate by Jonathan Maberry reaches back to the Golden Age of lost kingdom stories by taking the utterly science driven great granddaughter of Professor George Edward Challenger (hero of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World) and putting her on a collision course with a friend of her great grandmother’s – a woman who challenges the scientist’s belief in everything rational and provable in order to force the young woman to finally open her mind to a truth she does not even want to imagine, let alone believe.

And finally, The Tomb Ship by Becky Chambers, which is a story about a loophole, about the evil that humans do in the name of a so-called ‘Greater Good’, and just how easy it is to fall into the trap and how hard it is to even think of a better way. Or even just a way that lets the protagonist sleep at night with a somewhat clear conscience. That it also feels like a tiny bit of an Easter Egg for The Outer Wilds was just the right icing on this gold-plated cake of a story.

Review: Servant Mage by Kate Elliott

Review: Servant Mage by Kate ElliottServant Mage by Kate Elliott
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on January 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Fellion is a Lamplighter, able to provide illumination through magic. A group of rebel Monarchists free her from indentured servitude and take her on a journey to rescue trapped compatriots from an underground complex of mines.
Along the way they get caught up in a conspiracy to kill the latest royal child and wipe out the Monarchist movement for good.
But Fellion has more than just her Lamplighting skills up her sleeve…
In Kate Elliott's Servant Mage, a lowly fire mage finds herself entangled in an empire-spanning conspiracy on her way to discovering her true power.

My Review:

In the immortal words of humorist Lewis Grizzard, “If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.” The story of the Servant Mage, Fellian the Lamplighter, shows just how much of a surprise it is to the lead dog – or the ass that thinks they’re in front of you – when one of those dogs in the back gets sick of viewing that ass and decides to take themselves out of the pack.

I’ve carried this metaphor far enough, but it is still the lingering image in my mind after reading Servant Mage.

Fellian is the servant mage of the title, a mage in forced indentured servitude – in other words enslaved – as all mages are in these lands ruled by the so-called “Liberationist Council”. They weren’t really “liberators”, of course, or anything even close to that. They’re a theocracy, a religious tyranny that blames mages for all the ills of the world and has forced them into slavery to keep their spirits diminished and their magic untrained so that they won’t rise up and overthrow the tyrants.

Which makes Fellian ripe for recruitment into a conspiracy to overthrow the Liberationists and bring back the monarchy. All she has to do is rescue a bunch of monarchists trapped in an underground mining complex.

The conspirators assume that Fellian will be grateful for her rescue. And she is. Who wouldn’t be? They assume that her gratitude will extend to her continuing to serve the rebellion as a second class citizen because that’s considerably better than the slavery-conditions she had been forced to serve under. And that’s all they think she’s worthy to be. A second-class citizen, useful to them but not as equal or worthy as themselves.

But Fellian considers a bargain to be a bargain. Once her work is done, she has plans for her own future. As far as the monarchists were concerned, Fellian was a means to an end. Aren’t they surprised to discover that in the end, they were EXACTLY the same thing to her!

Escape Rating B: Let me begin by indulging in my usual complaint about novellas; this book was too short. I know I say that all the time but this time I really, really mean it even more than I usually do.

It’s not that Fellian’s journey from “servant mage” to epic heroine isn’t wonderfully complex – because it is. And it’s not that the cause she is recruited for isn’t worthy even if it’s not exactly perfect – because it is. And it’s absolutely not because the worldbuilding in this story isn’t fantastic – because it certainly is that.

And that’s kind of where the too short complaint comes seriously into play. The worldbuilding feels even deeper than the mining complex where Fellian stages that all-important rescue that she was recruited/strong-armed into performing. We get so much about the way this world works – and mostly doesn’t at the moment – that it feels like we’re at the entrance to something much bigger and greater.

Like a truly epic epic fantasy.

Especially when we view the world through Fellian’s eyes and especially Fellian’s mind. Because Fellian is from a land with a surprisingly egalitarian political structure – a place she can’t wait to get back to once this job is done.

From our view of Fellian we can see that she notes every single microaggression and disrespect that she receives, not just from the people who have enslaved her, but from the people who have rescued her as well.

Which leads right back to paraphrase my opening quote, “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” Her rescuers are sure they are the lead dogs and that they don’t have to be anything more than barely kind to the ones they perceive as being in the back of the pack. Which makes their reaction all that much more satisfying when Fellian rejects their oh-so-kind offer to help them in their quest.

Their privilege makes them blind, which does make the reader wonder how that will bode for their quest to restore the monarchy. Which may make things better for them, but not necessarily for anyone else. At least not better enough.

All of which leaves the reader with all sorts of interesting and lingering questions. What is going on where Fellian came from? What does she face when she returns? What’s going to happen to the rebellion? Can it possibly succeed and on what terms?

And, and, and…ad infinitum. Not quite ad nauseum but reaching towards there – at least in the sense that the questions left unanswered in this too-short story are downright legion.

In the end Servant Mage read as the beginning of something that might be marvelous and fascinating. But I’d feel a whole lot better about it’s incompleteness if I had an inkling that more were on the horizon.