First: thanks for asking. Seriously. Click through to read my answer.
This question isn’t as easy to answer as it might seem. I haven’t written a single overarching series to which there is a clear starting point, nor do I write what I call the “episodic series” (like mysteries) in which each individual book is structured so it can stand alone. Note: I think the episodic series is a fabulous form. I just don’t write it.
My series are set in different worlds. Each has a different feel and tone, and while certain similarities of theme and structure may crop up due to them all being written by me, I’ve discovered that some readers have clear preferences between them. I think of it as the old “which member of that boy band do you have a crush on?” test, meant to define your own personality. Do you like the funny one? The cute one? The smart one? The shy one?
My new short fiction collection THE VERY BEST OF KATE ELLIOTT can offer a good window into my fiction. It’s true I think of the novel, or even the trilogy, as my “natural length” rather than short fiction because my brain doesn’t really create snappy plot within a frame of 8000 words. But as a taste of my world building, my characterization, and my desire to examine the lives of people in multiple contexts, it can serve as a starting point. The volume also includes five essays, one original to the collection.
Note: Despite what you may have read, not all of the stories have female narrators. Of the twelve stories, three are told from the point of view of a male. My novels also include multiple male narrators in addition to women.
Bear in mind that my goal as a writer has always been to immerse readers in the worlds and the characters. I’m the kind of writer who hopes you expostulate angrily, out loud, on the subway while you’re reading because you’re so aghast at something a character did. I want you to cry when XXX dies, or write to me to beg that YYY meets the harsh justice they deserve because of their many horrible acts. I love the re-readers who find all the clues I’ve scattered through the text that set up the twists and reversals, or reveal the true heart of a person whose actions and words you may have misinterpreted all this time. If you like details and deeply immersive settings, my work is definitely a place you can find them.
Mostly, I seek to entertain. If I don’t entertain my readers they will stop reading. If I can keep you to the end, that’s the first step. If you come back for more of my work, that’s the second.
So where DO you start with my novels?
Disclaimer: My series are all multi-volume novels, meant to be read as a single story although I try to make each volume have a sense of temporary closure. While on occasion a reader has written that they accidentally started with (say) Cold Fire or The Burning Stone, and managed okay, overall I recommend starting with volume one of each series and continuing sequentially through the story that way. The characterization, world-building, and story function best when read as a single long narrative.
The latest is BLACK WOLVES, my new epic fantasy. I poured all my love for epic fantasy into this story, and wrote the kind of story I want to read with a huge range of human experience, politics, magic, war, adventure, love, and loss. I wrote plenty of male characters of course but just as many women whose actions and choices drive the plot. I wanted to write a protagonist who is a snarky older woman (Dannarah) who has had enough of your shit. I wanted to write a young woman (Sarai) who uses her intelligence to forge a path for herself in a situation where most women would be portrayed as passive. I wanted to show that women can be central in epic fantasy in a range of roles, not just in traditionally “male” roles.
Readers have called “a murder mystery at the heart of a political thriller wrapped up in an epic fantasy tapestry” and “Jane Austen’s Persuasion meets Dragon Age played as a family saga.” A reviewer calls it “the epic fantasy for someone who loves ladies, politics, the word ‘cock’, and dudes constantly embarrassed by ladies.” Also, the guy on the cover? He’s totally badass, and while we first meet him when he is thirty years old, most of the book takes place when he is an even more super badass 73.
Just when you think you know where this one is going, it will twist and upend your expectations. Also: giant eagles, demons, and a grouchy sidekick dog.
My next newest book is also my debut YA fantasy, COURT OF FIVES: In a world of magic and peril, four sisters try to make a difficult transition to adulthood in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege. Fierce, determined Jes wants nothing more than to make her mark in the most popular game in the country, but disaster is about to strike her family, one that will bring her into stunning contact with her long-buried heritage.
I call this this “Little Women meet American Ninja Warrior in a setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt” while the publisher has pitched it as “Little Women meets Game of Thrones meets The Hunger Games.” It’s fast-paced (it has to be, because it’s YA) and my most streamlined world building without, I hope, losing any of the depth and complexity I try to convey. As a woman who started participating in athletics as a girl, I wanted to write a love letter to female athletes and their competitiveness and drive, and I have adored the idea of competitive obstacle courses long before American Ninja Warrior or Tough Mudders and Spartan Runs came on the scene. This trilogy is my way of tossing my love for epic fantasy, sports, and girls in central roles all into one swirling story of intrigue, action, and a touch of romance.
My most recently completed series is the Spiritwalker Trilogy (1: COLD MAGIC, 2: COLD FIRE, 3: COLD STEEL). It is the first novel sequence I wrote in first person, and if you like the distinctive voice of the narrator, Cat Barahal, then it’s likely you’ll enjoy the book. Cat is loyal and impulsive and rash and stubborn and has a tendency to leap before she looks. This is definitely my funniest series, due largely to Cat’s unique way of telling her story and her colorful and often sardonic observations of other people.
Cat Barahal, as drawn by Julie Dillon:
I love writing interplay between characters and this trilogy definitely contains some of my best bantering exchanges. It’s a story with female friendship at the center (and what I’m told is a memorable love interest), as well as a fantasia of a gaslamp-era alternate history whose ramifications I’m rather proud of. I call the setting Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk fantasy adventure, with Phoenician spies, revolution, and lawyer dinosaurs. It starts a little slow as I set up the world but on the other hand I suspect “starting a little slow” is typical of my work on the whole.
The Crossroads Trilogy (1: SPIRIT GATE, 2: SHADOW GATE, 3: TRAITORS’ GATE) contains a fairly packed plot (it’s more tightly written than the sprawling Crown of Stars, see below) and features many characters in three volumes of multiple third person points of view. Of my current series I find this one the hardest to encapsulate, but basically it is a study of power. That sounds so dry, though, doesn’t it? How about: This is the book in which I wanted to examine some of the typical fantasy tropes about how disruptive and grim war and societies built and maintained by war are, and do so by exploring the lives of people who are most often deployed in narratives only as voice-less victims.
If that still sounds too dry, I wanted to write an epic fantasy series with the complex and dense interpersonal relationships I was watching (at the time of writing) in great tv shows like The Wire. Also: giant justice eagles (eagles the size of Cessnas from which reeves–like sheriffs–dangle hang-glider style in order to patrol the countryside). This trilogy contains a rare example of a character I fell in love with while writing to the extent I changed a major plot point solely for their sake and, by doing so, created what I think is a more powerful and effective ending than the one I had planned. Okay, let’s not be coy. I nailed the ending of this trilogy (and this is an ending that frustrates about 25% of the people who read the trilogy, as I knew it would). To get the full effect you have to read the whole thing, in order.
That’s another element of my novels: the convergence of setting, story, and character interaction piles up over the course of multiple volumes so the impact of decisions late in the story becomes increasingly intense.
Crown of Stars (1: King’s Dragon, 2: Prince of Dogs, 3: The Burning Stone, 4: Child of Flame, 5: The Gathering Storm, 6: In the Ruins, 7: Crown of Stars):
Step right up for your seven volume, cast of thousands, everything including the kitchen sink, Big Ticket epic fantasy. This is my “need to get my beloved Tolkien out of my system while commenting on and arguing with the things I think Tolkien didn’t do well or left out” series. The plot is nothing like anything in Tolkien, no Dark Lord, no ring, no fellowship on a quest. I just wanted to write a really really BIG epic fantasy, and wow did I ever. This one takes patience and will keep you busy for a good long while. It is slower paced and has tons of details, numerous interwoven plots, the best and worst of humanity . . . oh wait, I’ll just quote from this description of the book by medievalpoc because I think it sums up the story perfectly:
“If you need your fix of secret enclaves of sorcerers attempting to turn the world into its puppet, Mesoamerican elves and their time-traveling ghosts, Woman of Color protagonist with bookish habits and complex motives, political intrigue of the best and worst sort, White-farm boy-who-might-have-a-destiny protagonist, Non-human yet oddly relatable protagonist, Noble Knight Man of Color protagonist with simple desires and complicated loyalties, enormous cast of interesting and terrible people, the beauty of war, the horrors of love, heresy and power-mad Clergyfolk, Matriarchs who abuse their power and those that lead revolutions from prisons, Hack-N-Bash Knights in Full Plate and Kings who go forth in the land, Prophecies, Curses, Magic Cities that Aren’t There, and spoiled child empresses who like to get dirt on their gowns, welcome to staying up WAY past your bedtime for the foreseeable future.”
The Novels of the Jaran (1: Jaran, 2: An Earthly Crown, 3: His Conquering Sword, 4: The Law of Becoming) are science fiction with elements of planetary romance and space opera blended into my long time interest in anthropology and the study of how empires rise, sustain themselves, and fall. I flippantly call the first book Jane Austen meets Genghis Khan, in a society that is not a matriarchy but in which women have real authority, both public and private, within their specific spheres of influence. The later books become deeply involved with conquest, politics, and family dynamics both in the less technological cultures of the planet Rhui and in a larger systems-spanning empire in space. Some readers have complained that the first volume is too much like a romance. Hmmm. But don’t worry, there are major battles as well. Hope that helps.
The Highroad Trilogy (1: A Passage of Stars, 2: Revolution’s Shore, 3: The Price of Ransom): Space opera, set in a future history in which Earth sends out its unwanted to colonize a distant region. My first true kick-ass heroine because she is an actual martial artist. My early interests in revolution, inequality, and deconstructing the romantic hero trope can all be found in this story. Also a robot who communicates through Bach, as one does.
THE LABYRINTH GATE, my first published novel, is fantasy of the early industrial age in which magic and technology are intertwined, a portal novel in which newlyweds from our world find themselves in an alternate world, and a study in four different relationships and how they play out. Strangely there are a lot of women characters in this book; it’s like its some kind of harbinger of the future. Who knew?
THE GOLDEN KEY (with Melanie Rawn and Jennifer Roberson)(published after the Jaran books and before King’s Dragon): We had so much fun with this collaboration set in a fantasy country inspired by late medieval/early modern Spain and following the fortunes of a family of magical painters and the trouble caused by a scion of the house whose ambition overtops his morals. Bonus: The amazing Michael Whelan cover painting depicts the villain, and Whelan used himself as the model. Also every object in the cover painting has meaning within the plot. Read the book, then study the cover!
Now here’s the rundown, boy band style:
Spiritwalker: Funny, sexy, a great dancer, a bit of a flirt and yet definitely the loyal one.
Crossroads: Dark and brooding, intense. Has a secret that can’t be told.
Crown of Stars: Can sing, dance, act, write, model, host, design, and do everything. Really. Everything.
The Novels of the Jaran: The smart, fearless one. Has traveled a lot and has ambitions to do another solo project.
Highroad: A little old-fashioned, maybe a bit problematic, but still a favorite for dashing, electric physicality.
The Labyrinth Gate: The first member might be showing a bit of age but still has some good moves.
TWO NEW MEMBERS have joined the crew:
Court of Fives: Fierce, smart, strong, determined, ambitious, and definitely competitive. Black Wolves: Experienced, smart, no nonsense, and right in your face.
To those who haven’t read anything by me yet and are interested: If you do pick up something, thank you!
To all my readers over the years, I can’t say this strongly enough: I appreciate each and every one of you more than I can say.