Shadow Gate

“Uh, oh,” I thought as I picked up Shadow Gate. I’d bought it in a hurry while at the Atlanta airport, and I did not look closely at the cover. It was a big fat fantasy novel and I like those, especially when traveling. I didn’t read it on the plane, however, and so it was a few days ago that I pulled it off the shelf of books waiting to be read. That’s when I looked more closely at the cover. “Book two of Crossroads,” the fine print on the cover said. Crap.

“Uh, oh,” I said again as I flipped through the pages in front. There was a map. Not generally a good sign. With trepidation, I began to read.

Things started off well. I met a character who, apparently, had been killed in book one. Only, she’s what you might call “sort of dead”; she can walk around and talk to people and in fact can kick some pretty serious ass. She has become a Guardian, a person with great power and the responsibility to apportion justice in the land. One of the central themes of the book, and one I enjoyed exploring quite a lot, is what happens when those given the power to maintain justice turn around and misuse it instead. This gives all the adventuring and conflict a higher purpose, and many of the people we like are struggling with the issues, and sometimes making decisions that are morally questionable. Add cultural differences and you’ve got quite a yummy stew of ideas.

But let’s get to those two uh-oh’s, warning instincts that I have come to trust. I’ll start with the simplest one: the map. As a rule I’m suspicious of books with maps, for a couple of reasons. Writers often confuse a big stage with a big story, and have people tramping all over the place for no real reason. My story The Monster Within has travel, but there’s no need of a map. I kept the geography unimportant, and focussed on the people in the places. In this case, I looked at the map a couple of times at the beginning, but then gave up on it for two reasons. First, what little information it did impart it did poorly, second, much of the geography that really mattered for this story was off the edge of the map. As ‘outlanders’ interacted I really wished I knew how their domains connected. Oh, well. Ultimately, the exact locations of things wasn’t that important, and when I mentally threw the map away the reading experience improved.

Then there’s the ‘book two’ business. The cover of this book reads:

Shadow Gate Book Two of Crossroads.

What it should say is

Crossroads: Volume 2 of n – Shadow Gate.

Or, as I think about it more, perhaps the title should be:

Crossroads pages 781-1564

When I buy a book, especially in an airport, I expect a there to be a story contained between the covers. Airport selections are limited, and the chance that I’ve read book one of a series is small. Still, optimistically, I began to read this volume, and at first it seemed like Ms. Elliott was on my side. The mostly-dead character awakens, and we fast-forward ahead about twenty years. Many of the characters that are introduced subsequently weren’t even born when Marit became a Guardian (presumably after the end of the first volume), so I got the feeling that we were off to a nice fresh start. There were cultural traits and slang words that seemed to be taken for granted, but I worked through them. The writer could have done a little better welcoming new readers, but it wasn’t a big deal. Then there was a huge battle that was never depicted, but the aftermath drove much of the narrative. Characters appeared only to disappear again almost instantly. Hm. I started getting the feeling that I was seeing events that had been in book one, but were now being shown again from a very limited perspective.

Still, the narrative chugged along with good characters and big developments portrayed from very human perspectives. Morals and ethics of different cultures contrasted and clashed. The nature of the evil that threatens the land becomes clearer, but is plausibly self-justified. Bad people die. Good people die. The bad guys have the upper hand, but we see all the characters heading for a major confrontation. I was hooked.

It was the promise of the major showdown, and lingering hope that my impression at the start that book two was not merely a continuation of book one that kept me going. (Although, would it kill Ms. Elliott to be more selective with pronouns? To start with “he” after a break and go for a page and a half without naming the character is annoying to say the least.) On I read, and as I learned more about the overall power struggle among the Guardians the more interested I became. This was obviously the grand struggle that would span the entire series, while this book would resolve one specific part of that struggle. Wheels within wheels, I thought. We’ll take care of some personal conflicts, perhaps between Shai (who is shy) and the woman who torments him. Or maybe Kesh and Elidar will realize they have a common goal. There are about a dozen of those threads as we draw to the end of the volume, as well as some extra problems caused by conflict in faraway lands.

There is no ending. No smaller wheels within the larger plot. This is not a story, but an episode. It even ends with a cliffhanger. Once again I have shelled out my hard-earned cash to read a story only to discover at the end that I have merely invested in an installment, and I will have to purchase an unknown number of volumes over an unknown number of years to get to the end of the story. I could have set the book down at any point and be no worse off. Books like this should say in big letters: CONTAINS NO ENDING!

Note to Kate Elliott: Let me know when the entire series is published. I liked your writing enough to give the story a try — once you’ve finished writing it.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

10 thoughts on “Shadow Gate

  1. I sympathize with all your criticisms, but am most grumpy about the running pronoun issue because I recently ran into it even in a high art book. I say, Where is the editor?
    On my nightstand? – Nuclear Express which I think Keith would enjoy. It is non-fiction, by Thomas Reed and Danny Stillman (who was at LANL) and discusses how nukes have proliferated around the world. Bits that scare me the most – one of the few natural resources that North Korea has of value and worthy of exporting for money is uranium; and Apartheid South Africa had a nuke weapon program, but western countries convinced them to give it up; However there is no where for out of work and grumpy SA nuke experts to go, so the obvious choice is to sell their expertise to rogue institutions.
    Also on my nightstand is a novel – The Yiddish Policemans’ Union by Michael Chabon. He is the same author that wrote the Wonderboys. I saw the movie with Tobey MacGuire and Michael Douglas. I was ‘meh’ about the movie, tho it was well received. The Yiddish PU is not science ficiton but alternate reality. It envisions an Israel that failed in 1949 and caused the US to set up a temporary Jewish homeland in Alaskan territory called Sitka. The story concerns a murder mystery. I would not pick up this book on my own (I am just not down with the idea of alternate realities), but a friend gave it to me so I gave it a whirl. Aside from my predjudice, the word smithing is crazy good. A good educational read for aspiring authors. A lot Chabon’s great writing is just imagery – and heck I can do imagery like a newly sober hitman given one last assignment to redeem his permanent, but alive, place on the lowest rung of the meanest, rustiest ladder in a Bangalore rubber recycling shop. But it’s like great comedy. Not just a funny joke, but the timing and delivery. There is just something about the way Chabon executes his imagery to really put you in the characters stewing guts of worry.

  2. Another of Chabon’s works is reviewed in these pages, back when I was a little less rambling. I really like his writing and I’ll add Yiddish PU to my wish list on Amazon. Thanks asa always for chiming in about your readings.

  3. I am in the small town of Sitka, AK right now and it is nothing like the place described in the Yiddish Policeman’s union. But you should visit anyway.

  4. Jesse,
    My mother worked for Danny Stillman for many years, and gave me the book this February. I haven’t read it yet, but will move it forward in the “to read” stack now that there has been an independent recommendation. Thanks.
    Keith

  5. Sorry about the running pronouns. The characters are so often SO CLEAR in my head that I forget I haven’t named them. Oops. Should have caught that.

    Anyway, thank you for this review. I wanted to pop in to tell you that Traitors’ Gate is due for publication in August 2009, and it is the third book of the Crossroads trilogy. It finishes this story arc. It is a trilogy. Really.

    I will write more in this universe (I hope), but Crossroads is in fact NOT a seven volume series a la my other fantasy series Crown of Stars (which is a seven volume series, although the entire thing is complete and published). Crossroads “4” is intended to be a standalone volume, and then I hope to follow that up eventually with a second trilogy. Thus the confusion.

    Thanks again.

    • Thanks for dropping by! I modified the article a bit to remove the number seven (which I had pulled out of the air – or some darker place).

      I am very glad to hear that the arc ends after three books. The writing is quite good; I’ll be hunting down book one so that when the third comes out I’ll be ready.

  6. Bumping this to the top, in case you missed Kate Elliott’s comments while you were away. I’m now interested in reading the trilogy, although Pat’s and my finances dictate it will be through the Albuquerque Public Library rather than buying the book.

    Wouldn’t it be cool if authors’ royalties included library checkouts?

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