Friday, May 22, 2015

Series Review: The "Spiritwalker Trilogy" by Kate Elliott

Cousins Cat and Bee Barahal are lucky to be alive in an age of invention and change. They are among the first women to be educated alongside men in the academy of Adurnam. But the daughters of Phoenician spies and soldiers weren't born to sit quietly and behave: adventure is in their bones.

To Cat's surprise, so is magic. On her twentieth birthday, cold mages from the powerful Four Moons House come for her, citing an old contract marrying the eldest Barahal girl to the heir of their house.

But Phoenician families like the Barahals are renowned for their sly dealings. The contract that snared Cat was meant for Bee, whose prophetic visions make her a prize to whoever owns her. The thwarted mages of Four Moons House are determined to try again to claim her--over Cat's dead body.

Now both cousins are on the run, revolution and old magic igniting in their footsteps.


The Spiritwalker Trilogy by Kate Elliott (2010)
2 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 1/5
Strength of Characterization: 2/5
Logic of Plot Development: 1/5
Evocation of Setting: 3/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 1/5
Resolution of Conflict: 1/5
Emotional Engagement: 2/5
Mental Engagement: 2/5
Memorability: 2/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: none that I can recall
Overall Response: What a colossal letdown. I have a headache.


More Thoughts: Dear reader, if you took a shot for every Conveniently Overheard Conversation in this series, you'd be dead from alcohol poisoning. And your mourners could still host an open bar at your funeral reception with the booze you didn't get to finish. Yikes.

The Spiritwalker Trilogy (Cold MagicCold Fire, and Cold Steel) should be held up as an example of how not to write a story. Plotwise, the books are disjointed to the point of being nonsensical. Characters stumble aimlessly in and out of scenes and situations. Is there ever a plan? Kings, generals, radicals, and mystic creatures trip over each other in their haste to be wherever the main characters happen to be (themselves hauled along by author Kate Elliott's idea of a fantasy road trip that no one in the book ever agreed to take.) After the fourth or fifth time that the entire cast shows up--coincidentally!--in the farthest corner of the earth, one gives up waiting for justification.

Leaving plot aside, the books have the emotional cohesion of a ripped bag of Skittles. I hesitate even to label them "romance"; the starring relationship is painfully manufactured. Cat and Andevai's interactions are mind-bogglingly inconsistent and illogical, even allowing wiggle room for teenage hormones. (I'd call it a Slap Slap Kiss Kiss but it's really just Slap Slap.)

They aren't the worst culprits. The series is full of characters reacting bizarrely. In a single conversation, sometimes a mere line apart, characters shift from mortal terror to juvenile giggling to bellicose grandstanding. No such thing as tonal integrity exists. I'd wonder if key lines and transitions were cut in the drafting stages, except that this happens every time. It reads as if the plot not only changes direction every third page, but the casting as well.

Have I mentioned yet how convenient plot events are? It bears mentioning again. Because that's how often Kate Elliott writes happy accidents. Readers will quickly stop worrying when characters are Parted Forever, knowing they'll turn up again with a wink and a nod in a handful of chapters, several times per book. Eventually, Elliott stops pretending that even her characters are worried about each other.

It makes it a little hard to invest in the story, to say the least.

Every single plot revelation, major or minor, is delivered via eavesdropping. For as much time as Cat spends invisible or in hiding, the other characters must have a great narrative GPS system, because they are constantly announcing their intentions when she is within earshot. Actual spying is never required of her. People deliver up their secrets unprompted and without delay the moment Cat begins to wonder about them.

The icing on the Awfully Convenient cake is the dialogue. Dear reader, I guarantee you haven't encountered ham-fisted expository dialogue until this series. Cat and Bee, who have been together all of their lives, are constantly reciting Obvious Facts to each other, starting with Bee helpfully recapping the accidental drowning Cat's parents in a five-paragraph speech, to her face. Or this gem from the start of the third book (spoilers ahoy):
"You were talking in your sleep. You kept mumbling, 'All of us will be free.' 
"It's no wonder I mumble such words in my sleep. When I wake up, I remember that my sire threw Vai into his magical coach and drove off with him into the spirit world." 
"I know you're worried because your sire is the Master of the Wild Hunt, because he is a powerful magical denizen of the spirit world, and because not even the most powerful cold mage can stand against him. But even though all that is true, it doesn't mean you and I can't defeat him!"

You can almost see them referring to their plot event flash cards.

The great disappointment of the Spiritwalker Trilogy is that it could have been much, much better. It could have been a fresh breeze blown into the fantasy genre. It's actively female-centered, propelled (theoretically) by female friendship and female desire. It features an explicitly non-white cast, in an explicitly non-European-inspired setting. It shakes up fantasy staples like faerie courts and magicians, tosses in Napoleonic history and the Age of Exploration, and seasons it all with steampunk and a few zombies for good measure.

Conceptually, the series was above reproach. But this is the lesson every budding feminist critic has to come to grips with at some point: just because it challenges the norms doesn't mean it's any good.

This series had much going for it on paper. Just not the paper it was printed on.

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