A few years ago, I read Kate Elliott’s Unconquerable Sun. After enjoying the delight that was that novel, I promised I would read more of Elliott’s work, and well, I have fallen short. At least until a couple weeks ago, when I read her latest novella. The Keeper’s Six is a fun and exciting multi-dimensional romp that has layers that peel back in hindsight giving it a depth beyond its initial emotional satisfaction.
Esther is a member of a freelance hex, a cadre of six mages who can traverse the hostile spaces between worlds. Well, she was, until the Concilium suspended one of the very few Earth hexes for breach of contract. But when her son and Keeper of her hex, Daniel, is kidnapped by a dragon due to a perceived slight, she has to break the rules of her suspension. Zosfadel, a powerful dragon who kidnapped her son, wants her to return something he believes was stolen from his hoard, another dragon. It just so happens that this other dragon, Kai, is Daniel’s husband, and Kai does not want to become one of Zosfadel’s things. So Esther, along with her hex, venture into the dark to disprove Zosfadel of his notions of ownership of another being.
The story is nothing if not extremely chaotic and entertaining. The dynamics of the Hex and the various parties they run into are well realized for such a short story. There is a history to the relationships. Sure you can spot some of the tropes, but Elliott doesn’t lean on them and knows how to use them against the reader at times. There is the young wild card, the disgruntled close friend who’s done with Esther’s bullshit, the strong silent rogue with a kind unshakeable heart and a few others. It lets the reader slide in to engage with the emotional dynamics without Elliott having to force the characters on the reader. Sometimes the tension is ramped because you don’t know if someone is just itching for a fight, or exhausted from having to break the Concilium’s suspension.
The world is fun as Elliott displays realms landed within a void made of magic. Commerce between the various safety zones, independent cities and entire planets is regulated by the Concilium. One can only traverse the dangerous void of their own volition, but they can’t seek safety from the rogue magic unless they have been certified by the powers that be. Esther’s quest to save her son is made more dangerous because her hex is still under its ten year suspension. They have to find ways to trick their way past the guards and systems that seek to punish her hex for their previous crimes. While not necessarily nail biting, it did break up the traveling nicely, adding conflict beyond the interpersonal. Plus Elliott knows how to deliver the rules of her world in a way that doesn’t feel overly in your face. Sure, it can feel that way sometimes, but it’s alleviated by the voice of Esther and her sardonic delivery even though she respects the more natural laws.
The real treat, for me at least, was Esther’s constant disdain for the system she has to operate in. Instead of the usual brooding, with the suck it up and just do it mentality, Esther just goes around telling everyone what’s wrong with the system. She talks about dragons and their hoards as capitalist swine that need to be reigned in. Every conversation is an opportunity for Esther to reframe the narrative of her fantasy world to those around her. Obviously, this is not for everyone, characters and readers alike, but it added some charm. It also ruffles some folks feathers, or in this case scales, and leads to problems for Esther and her hex. Personally, I enjoyed it because it felt like a conversation Elliott was having with herself about the complicity of authors in their worldbuilding, and the industry that publishes those works. It isn’t completely thorough, and ends on a darker note, but that makes it feel more authentic. What can just one person do against a behemoth. Also, there is just something about a dragon who collects original copies of books from across the multiverse only to eat them and enslave the personalities contained within so no one else can experience them.
The Keeper’s Six uses the form of the novella to tell a good story while engaging in some introspection on the nature of the genre, worldbuilding and the industry. It’s a little wonky at times, and may be off putting for some people who don’t want to think about these things, but Elliot’s latest is a welcoming attempt. It features fun characters that feel like they have a history, and a world that feels new and exciting while containing just enough to make it feel relatable. The conclusion is pitch perfect given that some of the novel feels a little breezy in comparison. I, for one, would love to read more stories like this, and it definitely solidifies why I should really read more Kate Elliott.
Rating: The Keeper’s Six – 8/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.