Last summer, I read and really enjoyed Kate Elliott’s co-written The Golden Key, and I’ve been meaning to grab some of her solo work ever since. She has an extensive enough catalogue to make the choosing difficult, but I’m a sucker for big fantasy epics, so I finally dived in with Spirit Gate, which opens the Crossroads trilogy.
Like much epic fantasy, Spirit Gate drops the reader into a world facing an existential threat not seen in generations. The fabled Guardians have disappeared, and the eagle-riding reeves are facing increasing hostility as they try to keep the peace. There is a shadow spreading over the land, and it’s not clear what’s causing it or how to stop it.
It’s a fairly standard epic fantasy hook, but it’s a good hook, and Elliott spends parts one and two (of seven) introducing two reeve perspective characters and expertly setting the stage for the coming conflict. But then in parts three through five (covering just more than a third of the book), she pivots to another continent entirely, introducing three new perspective characters who have neither knowledge of nor interest in the reeve struggles. In these sections, we see several new cultures and new religions, and while it doesn’t take long to see how the new perspective characters will join the main plot, the whirlwind of potential religious conflicts only marinate in the background for potential use later in the series.
It can be a lot to take in, and spending so many consecutive chapters away from the reeve storyline does slow the pace significantly, especially from about the 15-35% marks. But once it becomes clearer how the stories will intersect, Spirit Gate really turns a corner and becomes a true page-turner. I counted seven perspective characters, and by the end, a full six of them are either well fleshed-out or especially intriguing in limited time, while the seventh—the one antagonist in the bunch—has little enough screen time that his less inspired point-of-view doesn’t harm the story much.
Similarly, the plot moves slowly at the beginning, with a lot of time spent gathering threads that will later be brought together, before speeding up in the back half, coming together with the perfect balance to an epic opener: short-term conflict and resolution to make Spirit Gate satisfying on its own, mixed with hints of long-term peril that leaves the reader eager for book two. The story doesn’t shy away from darkness, with slavery, sexual violence, and more than a few mutilated bodies marking the grim state of affairs, but neither does it revel in detailed descriptions or eschew good-hearted people fighting back. Preferences tend to vary significantly among fans of the subgenre, but for me, it kept the balance well.
Overall, Spirit Gate is a strong opener to an epic fantasy trilogy, and I’ll definitely be back for the second. The pacing was a little slow early, but that’s not unusual in the subgenre, and the first few chapters introduced enough conflict to serve as a carrot for pushing through the next few character introductions. The other complaints—a mediocre secondary antagonist POV, a map that flip-flopped two of the reeve halls—were minor in the face of characters with depth and a story that kept me coming back.
Recommended if you like: epic fantasy, perspectives that span cultures, shadows over the land.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.