Elliott, Kate: In the Ruins

Epic Tales – never mind the width, feel the quality.

Multi-volume fat fantasy comes in for a fair amount of disparagement these days. Fantasy mathematics, where a trilogy ends up in seven parts, is easily mocked. There are too many series, say the critics, where a many-layered tale with a cast of umpteen becomes an incoherent sprawl. Personally I’ve always found it easier to find exceptions rather than examples that confirm the naysayers’ opinions, but it can’t be denied that there are considerable challenges for the author in this kind of writing.

An epic tale needs a big theme to justify its existence. These days, dark lords intent on taking over the world just because it is there simply won’t do. The author must work harder than that from the outset. Having found an all-encompassing threat, its scale must warrant the broad canvas of a multi-faceted world. This must avoid the twin pitfalls of either lacking sufficient detail and thus interest, or collapsing under the stultifying weight of its own realism. Yet the big picture isn’t enough. The story must be brought home to the readers by engaging their emotions with the lives and deaths of fully realized individuals. The danger here is that too many separate plotlines will hare off in different directions and everyone loses sight of the overall picture. When authors take pains to get all this right, they are inevitably going to be taking some considerable time over it. Early volumes may come out at regular intervals, but the publishing gaps tend to get longer and longer. The onus on the author to keep faith with loyal readers increases. The story must progress with new twists and concepts at the same time as offering sufficient reminders of what has gone before for those of us who just don’t have time to go back and reread earlier volumes before picking up the new one.

Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series has dealt with a big theme from the outset; the exile of the Ashioi, akin to elves, from a world akin to medieval Europe. Those desperate to see Ashioi magic permanently removed from the human sphere come into conflict with those who come to realize this will end in cataclysm for all. This is a game for the highest stakes, and for the few who know just what’s going on it must be played out amid all the complexities of mortal struggles for territory, political power and influence. This all takes place in a world both readily accessible and fascinating in its strangeness, drawing on myriad historical, archaeological and mythological sources. Kings rule in a recognizably feudal system where, for example, the roles of women and religion are wholly yet plausibly different. It is a world where the heavenly spheres of medieval astrology are real yet the nature of their magic is something original. From goblins and trolls to griffins and dragons, a host of mythological creatures live and breathe unencumbered by the dead weight of anyone else’s storytelling because they are woven so coherently into the story.

Kate Elliott shows the same deftness in handling multiple plot lines. Key characters’ paths run in parallel throughout the series, crossing and re-crossing in established and in novel combinations. Such meetings often throw new light on events elsewhere, offering hope or threatening danger while neatly ensuring the reader stays current with developments in everyone’s lives. Successive volumes have brought in new characters who come and go or replace those whose course is run, constantly renewing the tale without unraveling it.

So much for the story so far. What of this sixth volume, In the Ruins? It is nigh on impossible to offer a coherent summary of a book this far into a series but I shall try for several reasons: to give a flavor of the richness of the Crown of Stars for those who haven’t yet read the books; and to show those who have how Kate Elliott has kept faith with her readers and what they will be missing if they don’t follow the story. I found this just as absorbing and satisfying a read as the previous volumes.

At the start of this book, all the people whose fates we’ve been following are widely scattered through the ruins of their world. Because the Ashioi have returned. Their land, once forcibly and physically cast into the outer spheres, has been brought home by the unstoppable cycle of the stars. This catastrophe happened at the end of the fifth volume and some readers might have anticipated this would be the final book, wrapping up loose ends and bringing the overall tale to a tidy conclusion. Kate Elliott shows her quality by confounding any such expectation. As she begins with the necessary, and by this stage considerable, recapping she does so through the eyes of the exiles who have returned. Thus the familiar becomes fresh and we see the life and culture of the Ashioi on their own terms. Before they were hostile and alien, either trapped as shades between worlds or exiled beyond the spheres. Those who were trapped, who have not aged, are determined to re-establish their dominance over mankind. Those who were exiled to cling to life in a barren land have suffered too much to risk such a fate again. Things are certainly not winding down to any kind of conclusion just yet.

Humankind is largely unaware of this threat. One of the strengths of this series has always been the recognition of the impact that the high and mighty have on the poor and powerless, with their wars and alliances made in service of their own heedless ambitions. Now the ordinary people and their rulers alike are struggling under sunless skies with food in short supply. The physical consequences of the Ashioi land’s return have been eruptions filling the sky with ash to blot out the sun, and tidal waves devastating shorelines all around the known world. The magical consequences have also been significant; many enchantments that have been used by all sides throughout the story are no longer working. Others, especially some used for vilest evil, are as potent as ever.

Amid this chaos, Prince Sanglant must establish himself as ruler in the place of his father Henry, now dead after being betrayed into demonic possession by the wife he had married in hopes of becoming Emperor. Sanglant’s own wife, Liath, faces renewed hostility as his elevation brings her to unwelcome notice. With Sanglant half Ashioi and Liath half daimone, there are plenty of people fearful of such rulers. Duty means Sanglant cannot go in search of their lost daughter, Blessing, whose knack for finding trouble does not desert her. Fortunately, neither do her faithful servants. As Henry left in search of imperial glory and Sanglant went east to find some means of combating the Ashioi, Biscop Constance, Princess Theophanu and other nobles were left behind in the north. They must decide who to support, while other nobles such as Lady Sabella and Duke Conrad seize as much power as they can, heedless of the starving populace. In these trying times, heresy is increasingly challenging the authority of the church. The great powers are fortunate that minor nobles and the junior ranks of the religious like Ivar and Baldwin are not backward in plotting with faithful troops to launch audacious strikes against would-be tyrants

In the south, Adleheid, who dreamed of being Henry’s Empress, is left with her ailing daughters amid the utter devastation of her kingdom. Her only powerful allies are enchanters who survived the lethal magical backlash of the cataclysm. The previously disregarded sorceress Antonia looks for power as Holy Mother, setting herself against Sanglant. She thinks she has the whip hand over Hugh of Austra, who was a key mover in the attempts to permanently exile the Ashioi. What Antonia doesn’t realize is that Hugh has found a way to use the changed nature of magic to his own advantage and his heart is as vile as his face is handsome. Hugh has no hesitation in using the innocent and helpless to further his own aims of devastating revenge on Liath. Rosvita and the other scholars once of Henrys court, whose knowledge could undo Hugh and answer so many questions, are still lost among the Arethousans. Alain, whose links to the rock-born Eika and whose knowledge of eons past could answer other puzzles, charts his own path through all this confusion.

I will admit to a degree of frustration when the story breaks off here. I really want to see everything brought to a resolution. Which is where the author’s note at the start of the book is worth reading. Kate Elliott offers some admirably honest insights into the writing of this series and assures us that the seventh book will conclude it. This is most welcome in one sense; I can eagerly look forward to what promises to be a fitting climax. On the other hand, I know I’m not going to want to leave this world behind. This is one of the very few big fantasy series that I can see myself going back and re-reading from the beginning.

This review originally appeared in Emerald City.

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