Liz Bourke Reviews The Keeper’s Six by Kate Elliott

The Keeper’s Six, Kate Elliott (Tordotcom 978-1-25088-913-3, $19.99, 208pp, hc) January 2023. Cover by Emmanuel Shiu.

Kate Elliott is a writer whose work I have long enjoyed and admired for its human­ity and its scope, even when that work tackled subjects I couldn’t quite enjoy. From epic fantasy with the high politics and romantic entanglements of the Spiritwalker trilogy, the convulsions of societies in transition of the Crossroads trilogy, or the more tightly focused but nonetheless still epic story of colonialism, extreme sports, and revolution in Court of Fives and its sequels, to the high-stakes, high-energy epic space opera of Unconquerable Sun, Elliott’s work is always compelling.

The Keeper’s Six is Elliott’s latest outing. ‘‘Epic’’ is the word I most associate with her work, and into this slender novella Elliott has packed a whole trilogy’s amount of worldbuild­ing, implication, and possibility. For some, this will be an attraction. It certainly is for me! For others, it might prove a source of confusion, for even as I enjoyed it, I sometimes found myself a little startled by the way the edges of the world – and the implications of the story – kept opening up into wider and wider vistas. It delighted me, but let’s be honest: one usually expects a novella to be a little more contained.

Esther Green is 60, and a Lantern: part of one of the six-people ‘‘Hexes’’ that can navigate between realms through the inimical emptiness of the Beyond. Most people on Earth know nothing about the Beyond, but it runs in Esther’s family. Her son, Daniel, is Keeper for their Hex: he holds the Keep that forms an entry and exit point from Earth to the Beyond, and which acts as a safe zone in that perilous space. There’s an inter-realm body that regulates Hexes, known as the Concilium: we don’t learn exactly what powers and dominions make up this body, but it certainly includes dragons, which appear to be the most powerful of the beings that travel between realms. Esther, unfortunately, got her Hex suspended by the Concilium a year ago. Es­ther has never met an injustice she didn’t want to work at putting right, and in this case her sense of justice and her ability to cover her tracks weren’t pulling in the same direction. Neither she nor the rest of her Hex are supposed to travel the Beyond for another ten years, and Esther hasn’t spoken to some of them since that happened.

Even more unfortunately, Daniel’s just been kidnapped, and in order to get him back, Esther’s going to have to traverse the Beyond, with the team whose livelihoods were badly affected by her choices. It’s time to get the band back together for one more gig – but, to stretch a metaphor, if anyone official catches them playing, there’ll be hell to pay.

Esther is a compelling and engaging character. She comes across as a complicated woman, one with a thorny history, deeply attached to her fam­ily – particularly Daniel, his spouse Kai, and their children – and vigorously opposed to injustice in all its forms. She carries labour organising literature in her pockets in case she finds some­one, in the realms across the Beyond, who might benefit from it, for many of the realms connected to the Beyond and their trading emporia support slavery and the trafficking of sapient beings. Kai, Daniel’s aforementioned spouse, is one of those beings, rescued by Esther and her Hex some five years before and brought home to heal, who fell in love with Daniel and decided to stay. Her compassion and her sense of justice drive her, sometimes into confrontations it might be wiser not to have. (For example: provoking the dragon who, it turns out, kidnapped her son to get her to do a job for him.) The characters who make up her Hex are deftly sketched, albeit in broader strokes, as are the handful of individuals Esther encounters on her journey – including a mysteri­ous yet attractive poet in apparently unwilling service to Daniel’s kidnapper.

That kidnapper, the dragon Zosfadel, wants Kai. He doesn’t know that Kai is Daniel’s spouse, but he does know that Esther broke Kai out, and that Kai is now on Earth. The dragon had made a bargain to deliver Kai, but now the other party in the bargain are claiming they never received what they paid for. None of this is quite aboveboard, as it happens, but with enough power people can get away with rather a lot. Esther’s not about to trade one member of her family for another, but she also can’t fight a dragon directly. She and her Hex need to beat him at his own game, while navigating the hazards attendant on both the Beyond and the Concilium alike.

The Keeper’s Six is a deft and engaging story that sprawls right up against the edges of its length. It is sufficient and satisfying in itself, but nonetheless tantalising in its nods to a world wider, and characters whose histories are more complex, than fit onto the page. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’d gladly read more stories in this setting.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

This review and more like it in the January 2023 issue of Locus.

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