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Spirit Gate - Kate Elliott This book gets 3 stars because the first 200 pages (in hardback) were a slog, but the remaining 250 were solid 4-star quality. I was a bit put off at first by the lack of tension, main characters happily carousing in taverns (snooze), and what seemed to be a very idealized fantasy world (not to mention the cartoony cover). But! The book gets better, the tension picks up, and the world isn't nearly as idealized as it might first appear. And the trilogy keeps improving; the final book is amazing.

A spoiler-free review of the trilogy:

STORYLINE/PACING: Like many an epic fantasy, this could be summarized as "a defensive war against evil." But being a character-driven book, the plot is as much about each character's individual arcs and subplots, and being toward the realistic end of the fantasy spectrum, good and evil aren't clear-cut. There's much more character interaction than swordfighting, and the pacing is maybe a bit on the slow side, but once it gets going midway through the first book, the plot is compelling and something is always happening.

While there are logical ending points for the first and second books, like most fantasy trilogies this one is of the "three-volume novel" variety, and I rushed through them all back-to-back. But although more novels are planned in this world, there's a solid resolution at the end.

CHARACTERS: The character development overall is quite good, and most of the main characters are sympathetic and likable if at times frustrating. Elliott is a rare epic fantasy writer in that she uses the multi-book format to actually further develop the characters, and I found my opinions on several of them changing book by book.

A few things that stand out: One, the characters have actual interests, like carpentry, gardening, etc., beyond fulfilling their plot-related goals (these books made me realize how rare that is in fantasy). Two, they're products of their cultures, and have baggage and prejudices that they never shed. I was expecting the main characters by the end to repudiate slavery and realize there's no such thing as demons.... but most of them never did, and that made it better. Three, I liked the way sexual relationships are handled. There's romance (surprisingly little of it), and there's meaningless sex, and there's attraction that never turns into relationships. Characters (women included!) can be attracted to and have sex with more than one person in the series. Speaking of which: there are a lot of strong female characters, but more in a realistic way than a wish-fulfillment kind of way; it's good stuff.

For the first two books I did feel that personal morality aligns rather too closely with which side of the war a character is on, and wished for more moral ambiguity. To a large degree that's subverted in the final volume, though.

WORLDBUILDING: A highlight of this trilogy. There are multiple highly-detailed cultures. I loved the amount of thought Elliott clearly put into the customs, religions, and so forth, and the fact that the inspiration was non-European. I see some Pacific Islander, Chinese, Mongol, Muslim and Zoroastrian influences, and undoubtedly didn't recognize many more. The world is increasingly well-developed in subsequent volumes.

The Hundred, where most of the action takes place, is a bit idealized, but every culture has its strengths and weaknesses. The Hundred does very well (especially compared to the other countries in this world) in women's rights and accepting homosexuality, and has been peaceful for generations despite no strong central government. But slavery is widespread, arranged/forced marriages are normal, and there's corruption, xenophobia and disenfranchisement of religious minorities. Meanwhile, the only group in the entire world that opposes slavery also forces its women to wear something burqa-ish, and virtually imprisons them in the home.

The introduction to the world is handled well. Customs aren't explained so much as mentioned in passing, allowing the readers to deduce cultural practices and background from context. Sometimes a custom will be alluded to and never mentioned again, hinting at hidden depths. So, thank you Ms. Elliott for treating readers like adults here.

THEMATICS: You can tell Elliott thinks about what her books are saying, and epic fantasy still being a somewhat conservative and male-dominated genre, I love reading good fantasy books informed by a progressive and feminist ethos. The trilogy examines how power affects people, how cultures interact and change and has a fascinating take on the myth of the fantasy hero and the good-vs-evil dichotomy.

I did think that the "good" side (with very different, conflicting ideas of what's "good") was better drawn than the "evil" side. It's great that the "evil" army is human, comes from within the Hundred itself and that the problem was at least partially caused by actual corruption and ignored problems--but in my judgment Elliott didn't do enough with that, and there's no apparent reason why many of the people on the evil side are quite as evil as they are, and why there are so many of them. One has to read between the lines to figure it out, where the author should probably have explored the reasons for this more or else not had so much cruelty on the one side and so little on the other.

WRITING: The prose is average. Not bad, but workmanlike. It's true there's a lot of description, which I mostly liked but isn't for everyone. There are several POV characters, but dealt with in a disciplined way; we don't get into everybody's head, the POVs are well-developed and there's no head-hopping.

MAGIC: Not much of it, thankfully. No sorcerers, although a very limited number of people have very limited magical powers. The supernatural elements are mostly in the worldbuilding, while the real focus here is on people, as it should be.

1) Groups that are usually either evil or two-dimensional in fantasy are neither here: merchants, conquering horsemen, people who wear headscarves or turbans, and most notably, non-white people (which describes almost everyone in the trilogy). Even slave traders aren't automatically written off.
2) Elliott allows main characters to be illiterate. Most authors do cortortions to avoid this even where it's realistic.

1) Being told halfway through the second book that "week," "month" and "year" don't mean what I thought they meant. What do you mean a year has 432 days? Couldn't another word have been used to clue me in to this sooner? Do I have to recalculate everyone's ages now? Blargh.
2) Zubaidit. What is this super-sexy, scantily-clad, uber-skilled female assassin doing in a book that is meant to be taken seriously? Did she really just do a backflip in the middle of a fight? (Okay, she does get better after the first book.)
3) Characters coincidentally meet rather too frequently.

I could keep talking about this trilogy, a clear sign that it engaged me. But this is probably enough. Not for everyone, but recommended to those who like thoughtful, character-driven fantasy set in fully realized secondary worlds.