It is books like this one that make me question my desire to review every book I read. Some books I feel rather passionate about, whether that is in a negative or positive way is sort or arbitrary – though the negative reviews are the most fun to write. Some books at least get me thinking about a subject to the extent that I have something to say about it.
Kate Elliot wrote the absolutely brilliant Crown of Stars series which wove a fascinating tapestry of magic, history, politics, religion and characters in a story that encompassed nations and wars and cultures and felt so real that at times I forgot it was fantasy and not historical fiction. The characters felt alive and I traveled with them and followed their thoughts and discoveries and felt their pain.
I was sad to see it end.
All this, however, doesn’t touch upon Spirit Gate.
If the Crown of Stars series had a flaw it was that Kate Elliot loves to describe things – details, details, details. These all serve to make the setting feel more real but, as has been proven with Robert Jordan, once you’ve described the camp and the tent and the fire and the dog sitting next to it and the sounds of soldiers telling jokes outside you don’t need to do it again when you come back to the character in fifty pages. So when Kate Elliot mentioned in an interview that she recognized wordiness as a flaw in her books and that she would focus on making the next ones more streamlined I could not contain my joy. (For those of you who can’t see my face right now – i.e. everybody – I’m using my Ben Stein look, I can always contain my joy.)
Anyway. Spirit Gate both lives up to its potential and falls short at the same time. It is definitely shorter than any of the Crown of Stars books by a significant amount – though it is still nearly five hundred pages. The problem is that the writing actually suffers from the slimming down. This is not usually the case. Most often if you can say it in five words instead of twenty then five is better. It appears that Kate Elliot trimmed in the wrong places. The descriptions are all still there in their finite and photographic detail. I have no doubt that I would recognize every building and city if I saw it in real life. The characters and dialogue, however, become spotty and sometimes silly. The beginning of the story jumps around at first and feels really confusing. Most of it is setup for later books, I think. Once it settles down and the characters actually meet each other – about two thirds of the way through the book – things start to make more sense.
I think my biggest complaint, though is in the form of the characters themselves. It feels like the author is trying too hard to make characters that are not black and white but perhaps are more gray scale. It kind of makes it so that very few of the main characters are likable at all. Most of them are whiny or cowards or woman chasers – almost all of them own slaves and do not question the morality of it – and it makes the book feel like it’s filled with nothing but depravity even though there is little of it there.
In the end I neither liked nor hated this book. I read it. Now I’m done.