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Kate Elliott's ''Crossroads'' sequence has so far come in large, slightly off-putting chunks. They've been decent reads, by and large, with a huge cast of wonderfully drawn characters, but the sheer size and slow pace of the action has meant I didn't enjoy them as much as I may otherwise have done. ''Traitors' Gate'', the third in the sequence is different in only one aspect; the character development is still there, the huge page count is still there, but the pacing is a lot better.
Many years ago, the Guardians ruled the Hundred as the keepers of the law. They presided over the assizes, settling disputes and dispensing justice. In the intervening years, the Guardians were thought to have deserted the Hundred, but they have returned in a corrupted form. Today's Guardians seem to be people who have died and come back to life seeking only power. Whilst a few of the Guardians seem untouched, the remainder are leading armies of conscripts and prisoners through the land.
The reeves, the current upholders of the law, are losing numbers as many of them are being killed and not replaced. Joss is now the reluctant commander of the reeves, but is haunted by one of the Guardians taking the form of his lost love Marit. He's struggling to believe that it can possibly be her and believes she may be a demon sent to distract him from his purpose. The one person who seems inclined or able to defeat the Guardians is the outlander Captain Anji. But Anji has distractions of his own with a newborn son, the sudden arrival of his mother after many years apart and the knowledge that one of the Guardians he has pledged to kill is his brother-in-law.
Earlier parts of the ''Crossroads'' sequence have covered a slow pace and a lack of action with some great character development. This time around, however, nothing needs covering up, as the story is picking up pace and the quality of the story comes close to matching the quality of those enveloped in it. This doesn't mean that the characters are lessened, as they are as well drawn as ever, which helps draw the reader further into events.
As with the second part of the sequence, ''Traitors' Gate'' dives straight into events, making it a poor place to start if you've not read either of the earlier parts. Indeed, even I found things a little confusing to start with as the book opened with a couple of the lesser characters in a situation and I struggled to remember who they were and what they were doing there. Once things settle down, however, Elliott reintroduces to old friends, many of them in different situations from before. With the battle to remove the Guardians from the Hundred hotting up, the pace soon gets going and, with some exceptions, drags the reader through what is a hefty book.
My favourite part of this series has always been the characters and this is true once again. Elliott writes the major characters with such wonderful precision, separating each from another that you can tell who you're dealing with. Even amongst the nine Guardians, you can immediately tell which one is which from their actions. Each wears a different coloured cloak and whilst I never quite got the hang of which name had which cloak, the contrasts between the war-like Radas, the determined Marit, the unsure Hari and the submissive Yordenas helped keep them all apart, as well as making it clear which side the reader is supposed to be on in the battle.
As good as the whole book was, I particularly enjoyed the ending. There were some lovely twists that made it interesting, although one did feel a touch far-fetched even for a fantasy novel. The ending read a little like an ending, but with openings that you could see may lead somewhere if there are to be further books in the series which, apparently, there are. With the earlier books, I've not always felt inclined to continue thanks to the books leaving me slightly drained, but this time I feel invigorated and ready to read on.
''Traitors' Gate'' is still a large and imposing book, but it recovers well from a slightly shaky start and becomes a gripping read, which I wasn't expecting after the previous parts. The series as a whole suffers from over-elaboration at times, but as it proceeds it's getting better and I'm now able to look back with greater understanding on the earlier parts. You do have to struggle with those earlier parts to get the most from this one, but this is a very good book in its own right, even if it can't be fully appreciated in isolation. With a cheapest price of £7.50 from the Amazon Marketplace, you do really need to have enjoyed, or at least appreciated, the earlier parts for this to be worth a purchase, but it's certainly something worth borrowing if you've kept up with the series thus far.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk