Kate Elliott’s 2023’s The Keeper’s Six is an upcoming (in only one month!) fantasy novel.
Although few on Earth are aware of this, Earth is but one minor realm among many. Venture through the alien and deadly Beyond and any number of other worlds may be accessed. Although Earth is a primitive backwater, it is the source of a few goods that are available only on Earth. Thus, it has its own Keeps, through which Earth may be accessed and trade items acquired. The Keeps allow intermittent contact with the other worlds scattered through the Beyond.
Esther and the other members of her magical Hex used to wander the Beyond. Forbidden to do so in punishment for her transgressions, Esther is stuck on Earth. Crisis will force her to break the terms of her sentence.
Esther’s son Daniel is a Keeper, guardian of a Keep. Overwhelmed and kidnapped, Daniel has time to leave a clue for Esther. To follow the clue, however, Esther and her Hex will have to break their parole and cross the Beyond.
Perhaps this is not entirely happenstance, as the person who commissioned the kidnapping has to communicate with Esther to deliver their ransom demand. Having Esther track the culprit down speeds up the ransom process. On the other hand, perhaps the fact Daniel was able to leave a clue is a hint the player on the other side is not quite the mastermind it believes itself to be.
There are two general orders of being travelling the Beyond: humanoids, of which humans are a lesser example, and dragons. Through their control of the Concilium, Dragons make the rules. Humanoids break regulations at great peril. Unfortunately for Esther, the kidnapper’s boss is Zosfadal of the Fifth Clan of the Stone Kindred — a dragon.
Slavery is practiced in many of the Realms. Before her disgrace, Esther rescued Kai, a prisoner of slavers. Kai and Daniel subsequently fell in love and married; despite being different species1, they even have children.
Zosfadal would phrase matters different. By freeing Kai, Esther stole from Zosfadal. If Esther would like to see Daniel again, Esther will have to deliver Kai to Zosfadal’s horde. If she refuses or fails, she will never see Daniel again.
The dragon believes Esther must choose between those two options. The dragon is sadly deluded.
This is a case where longer would have been better. Elliot’s background requires a certain irreducible number of words to outline and in a 208-page novel2 that adds up to a larger fraction of the work than I liked.
None of the Earth governments have any idea that Earth routinely trades with alien worlds. Probably for the best, since it seems very likely that open contact with the other Realms would work out as well for Earth as contact with Europe did for Africa.
One of the things Earth is exporting, at least to the staff of Zosfadal’s horde, is the why and how of organized labour. SFF being mainly the product of the middle class, there are not a lot of pro-union works to be found in the genre. SFF authors seem to prefer individual (and less effective) solutions to workplace misery. This book is one of the few pro-union SFF works I have read.
The Keeper’s Six also belongs to another elite category: SFF in which a main character, or several characters, are older women. In this case, the protagonist is a widow with grandkids. The bad guys will learn that it’s not a good idea to deliberately annoy older magical practitioners: even if they lack raw power, they almost always have considerable useful experience. Zosfadal is well read but apparently he hasn’t read any books featuring characters like Granny Weatherwax, Marley Jacobs, or Martha Macnamara.
The caveats about infodumping aside, I enjoyed this. The characters are interesting, the plot engaging, and the work as a whole great fun. Having established her setting, one hopes Elliott returns to it, sooner rather than later.
1: How this is possible is addressed.
2: Yay, for the return of short novels.