Where Should I Start With Your Novels?

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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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:

spiritwalker_sketch_5_cat1I 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.

 

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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.

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UK cover

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.

 

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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.”

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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?

 

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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!

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

35 thoughts on “Where Should I Start With Your Novels?

  1. I’ve never thought of myself as polyamorous before, but I’m totally in love with all the books above. 🙂

    Wherever you start, if that story kindles your infatuation, you’ll probably find yourself falling in love with the whole body of work, too. For me, at least, it’s the common threads that really draw me in: the depth of worldbuilding (including society-building); the richness of the characters, and their relationships to each other and their societies; the themes of power and oppression and “othering;” all pulled together by fantastic storytelling that makes it hard to go to bed on time.

    These books more than deliver on the entertainment front. They’re all fun rides. But what made me fall in love with them, instead of just enjoying them, is that each story left me feeling that I’d been immersed deep in a different life, in a different wholly-realized world. And that I’d emerged a slightly different and more wholly realized person because of it.

    Not every book can give you that. But if you’re like me, every book on this list can.

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  3. That sense of being “immersed deep” is why I read your books too!
    I went through that listing of the series going “loved those, ooh those were great, those too, I haven’t read those yet need them right now, loved those…”
    🙂

  4. Jaran is one my favourite books, I can read it over and over, loving it every time. It’s gotten to the point where the original copy I found on our bookshelf when I was a teenager now has duct tape holding it together. As an archaeologist I very much appreciate the ‘anthropology’ approach to the novel and the connections with nomadic Mongolian and Russian cultures. Seeing this makes me want to read it again but unfortunately I now live an ocean away from my book collection; guess I’ll have to invest in another copy and an e-book version for on the go!

  5. Rachel, thank you so much! Things like this (travel, overseas) is why I love e-books (although I mostly read print at home). Is this your archaeological work that has taken you overseas? If so, what are you working on?

  6. I just finished Black Wolves (which disrupted my sleep patterns for the last week) & immediately searched for your web site to see if I could find out how long I have to wait for the Book 2. I’m embarrassed even to ask, when I realize how long it takes to create such an epic, but even though I devoured it like a junkie desperate for her next fix, I savored every word. It will be so hard to be patient.

  7. Thank you so so so much. I really appreciate your kind words, and I’m thrilled and delighted that you enjoyed Black Wolves. Book 2 will not, alas, be coming out in 2016. I promise you that it will be the very best book I can write, so I thank you for your patience.

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  9. Totally unrelated to your novels; didn’t know if you heard Bob Levy passed last year. I know you are friends with 2 of my sisters, but wanted to let you know.

    Just finished one of your novels that was Dad’s as I was going through files in the garage and saw your name. Give Jay my regards!

    Sharon

  10. I’m so sorry to hear of Bob’s passing. We were in a writing group together many many years ago, and he was always a cheerful presence.

  11. Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen. If a review copy of Black Wolves were to make its way to Black Gate, I’d love to cover it in my series fantasy review column there.

  12. Sarah, I will see what I can do. You can also request via Ellen Wright at Orbit Books.

  13. Halfway through King’s Dragon, first thing I’ve read of yours, and … patience smatience! Not slow at all. Love the immersion, the characters, the realness of it all. Very detailed, but so far I wouldn’t cut out a word. I like it. A lot. Looking forward to the next six volumes. I hope the ending isn’t dopey, ’cause I’m in for the long haul. Cheers!

  14. Thank you, Dustin! I hope you enjoy the whole thing. I can pretty much guarantee the ending isn’t dopey — in fact, by and large, book 2 is grimmer than book 1.

  15. I just finished the Jaran series, and felt like there was a lot left to be answered: about the Chapalii, about the princely game, about the revolution. You gave an interesting breakdown of your books here, but did not really link any of them as being written in the same world. Are any of the questions raised in Jaran et all answered in any of your other series?

  16. Cara, there are unanswered questions. The Highroad Trilogy offers a few glimpses into the future, although it was written *before* the Jaran books. But I do have as-yet-unwritten books to write.

    I hadn’t thought about drawing links between the worlds for no other reason than I just hadn’t thought about it. When I have time I will write up a post that shows how some of the series connect.

    Thank you!

  17. Thank you, now I know where to start next. It’s always exciting finding a new author you like, and then finding that there are many published works to explore! Perhaps by the time I’ve worked through these, some new stories will appear…

  18. Dear Kate,

    Last week I finished your ‘Crown of Stars’ series and I have been dead inside ever since.

    It may sound like the beginning of a sad post but it’s exactly the opposite. You wrote in this entry that you want the reader to feel the emotion, to cry when a character dies, because that means you did your job right. In book 7, when the final battle was taking place, I cried 9 times in less than 2 hours, before I stopped counting. I’m pretty sure I stopped breathing at one point, too. And that was just those particular 2 hours where I made the effort to actually count.

    This series broke my heart in every way imaginable. It started at the end of book 1 and continued gloriously until the very end. But mostly, when I passed a certain point of heartbreak, I began to just feel grateful. Grateful to have been able to experience such a beautiful and well-written storyline. Grateful to have been able to love such wonderful and consistent characters, and be a part of their lives, in a way.

    I fell completely in love with Sanglant at the end of book 1. And then his book 2 storyline only cemented those feelings. Throughout the series, his story and development felt so beautifully human. Reading his most intimate thoughts sometimes made me want to hug him and never let go, and sometimes slap him until he comes to his senses. But he always felt very real. For that journey and development, he’s earned the position of my absolute favorite (in all of literature) – with all the good and the bad.

    Then there’s my girl Liath, who has my undying love as well. She fought very bravely to be to be what she became in the end, to overcome her weakness and to learn to trust, and love. She reminded me a lot of myself so reading her story of self discovery felt very empowering. I learned to respect her so much, and strive to become so strong like her.

    They were more than just characters to me, they were a huge inspiration. They showed me that no matter how bad it was and how horrible were the things they had to endure, they made it through. There was this thing Liath said to herself when she saw Hugh again. “That which harmed me can harm me now only if I allow it to, and I will not.”Last week, when I was in a hard situation as well, I remembered it and thought to myself – “I will not.” And it gave me strength to carry on and embrace what came.

    This series has been in my life since 2013, when I bought books 1 and 4 (thinking they were 1 and 2) on a sale in my local bookstore. But then I could not find the rest anywhere in Polish (my language) except books 2 and 3 in e-book form, and I’m not a fan of e-books. The rest was not even translated yet. So despite the fact that I fell in love with the series, I was unable to continue it. But earlier this year I found more books published and the journey began again. It really came back into my life at a time when I needed something that would inspire me to keep going and be tough, and it did. Those characters did. They were a huge inspiration, and still continue to be.

    Back in 2013, I couldn’t have dreamt of ever getting to finish CoS. But now, years later, books 6 and 7 were the first I ever read in English. And now it’s done. It feels surreal. I’ve grown close to this series. It touched me on the most personal level. It feels familiar and cozy. It was such a wonderful and amazing journey, and following those characters (not only Sanglant and Liath, there were so many brilliant ones aside from these two) was truly magical. Even when I was hurting, I was simultaneously mesmerized by the beauty of your writing. I don’t know if it’s the best series in the world but… to me it is.

    It still bugs me that I own all parts except for the last two (which were not translated into my language) but I am planning to maybe purchase them in your store. The shipping fees are killing me but, in the end, the heart wants what it wants. 🙂

    When I’ve come to terms with my grief and longing after CoS, I think I’ll start reading the Crossroads trilogy.
    You have won a huge fan in me. You broke me and then helped build me back again. Thank you, for doing both.

  19. Aneta,

    I don’t have adequate words to thank you. I am deeply touched by your comments and grateful that you found my work. I wrote Crown of Stars for many reasons and one is to show people who struggle to maintain their selves (their souls) and their integrity in the face of terrible events. If I have helped people find that same strength and resolve in themselves, then I can’t possibly wish for any higher compliment.

    All best wishes,

    Kate Elliott

  20. Found you the way I have been getting new authors the last few years; read an anthology edited and/or including a story written by a favorite author, then checking out the writers of the ones I like best. You have not let me down, and are the number one author I have been recommending lately. I started with the Crossroads Trilogy, did The Best of, and am now finishing up the Spiritwalker series (I find Rory refreshing). I have started Crown of Stars’ first book, and am looking forward to working my way through the series. I love the way you create strong characters, and that gender doesn’t define roles. I don’t think I expressed that right. I love how they are not formula stories, that you can surprise me, that endings are not always happy. I love your style, voice and wit and am so thankful I found you. Loved the essays in the back of The Best of, had my 80 year old mom read them and shared them with the Middle School English teacher I work with. Guess what I want to say is I like what you have to say. Thank you.

  21. Heidi, Thank you so much. I so appreciate your comments on strong characters and gender. That’s always been my goal: to write characters who are people with strengths and flaws but a clear sense of who they are.

    Good luck with Crown of Stars. It is my everything-but-the-kitchen-sink series, and in fact I think there must be a kitchen sink in it too.

  22. So I came across your work through pure chance. My son wanted to read Black Wolves so I had to read it to make sure it was appropriate (he is 9, it wasn’t). In his defense, he thought it was actually about black wolves. Well, I loved the world and characters that you created and wanted more.

    So I just finished (literally minutes ago) the Crossroads Trilogy and I have a bone to pick. First, none of the Guardians appear in Black Wolves. This concerns me as I’m a fan of them and hope they appear in the BW trilogy. Second, I feel that there should be a novel bridging Crossroads and BW. How did we get from the end of Traitor’s Gate to the beginning of BW? So much time passed!

    I look forward to reading more of BW trilogy. Now I have to reread or scan BW again! More Hundred books please (or short stories of current characters in the Hundred).

  23. After reading all of Eddings, Feist, Brooks and many of Jack Whyte I was looking for a new author to me to start reading while keeping with the Fantasy genre , I started reading Cold Magic and have quite enjoyed what I’ve read- Still reading it and do like the Cat character and her comments she keeps inside.

  24. Ben, thank you so much. Yes, I think 9 is a little young for Black Wolves. I have written a YA fantasy (Court of Fives) that has gotten on some state library middle grade lists although the heroine is older (17) and I originally thought of it as a book for 13+.

    One Guardian does make an appearance in Black Wolves (Marit). They will play a greater role in the subsequent books of the trilogy (I’m working on book 2 now). If you read or scan BW in light of having read the Crossroads Trilogy, do let me know if it alters your take on some of the events. 🙂

    There is a bridge short story, which you can get either in the ebook version of April 2015 Lightspeed Magazine OR in my short story collection with Tachyon Press (The Very Best of Kate Elliott). The story is called “On the Dying Winds of the Old Year and the Birthing Winds of the New”.

    I made a decision to write Black Wolves the way I did (with most of the “past” embedded inside a much later story) because I wanted to write about memory and change, and how an older person looks back on their life.

    Again, thank you so much.

  25. Brian, Thank you! Cold Magic is the first novel I wrote in first person, and while at first I was concerned it would be difficult to maintain first person for an entire novel, in the end Cat’s voice came so easily that the entire trilogy really was a joy to write.

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  27. Just started The Burning Stone…ABSOLUTELY LOVE The Crown of Stars series! So much adventure, a little bit of romance, and lots of action. It’s the perfect blend! This is definitely on the list of my all time favorite series!

  28. As far as your body of work is concerned, I’m a newbie. I read only Spiritwalker trilogy so far and that is my only reference point. It connected with me in ways very few stories ever have. It rocked my world. Immersion in the world you built jolted life through shriveled, dusty veins sadly devoid of anything worth striving for, trampled by mundanities. Powerful world you created reminded me of my heart’s desires, long forsaken. Made me ache with desire to be able to write like that and give you back the same joy your work had given me because simple “thank you” or few bucks for a book seems pathetically insufficient. That particular universe you created made me wants to be more, live more and dream more. Thank you for reminding me.
    If Spiritwalker trilogy is anything to go by, I’m sold on your writing. Everything you ever wrote and everything you’ll ever write I’ll read without pause and with gusto.

  29. Patricija,
    Thank you so much! I really appreciate your kind words about Spiritwalker. I think there are basic themes I keep coming back to in all my stories. As well, however, I do try to do something different with each series in terms of tone and setting, which is why I put up this (all too brief) description of the various stories.

  30. I started by reading On the Dying Winds of the Old Year and the Birthing Winds of the New in LIghtspeed Magazine, then read the Crossroads. Obviously, the story was a bit of a spoiler, as I knew where Mai would end up, but that helped me look critically at the relationship of Mai and Anji. I just reread Black Wolves last week and am rereading Spirit Gate. I loved how the very beginning and ending of the trilogy tied together.

  31. Donald, Thank you so much. I wrote Crossroads knowing the end, and always pointing toward that end — “to think she had mistaken him for the hero of the tale” — and I hope the story reads as well knowing the outcome.

  32. Pingback: Spirit Gate (Crossroads #1) by Kate Elliott – Book Reviews

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