“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.
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