BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Belying its title, a comprehensive collection of the shorter fiction (and some non-fiction) of Kate Elliott.
PROS: Beautiful Julie Dillon cover art is the entry point to a diverse collection of stories and novelettes that spread widely across the spectrum of the author’s career; a strong evocation of the themes and concerns of Kate’s career.
CONS: The comprehensive nature of the collection means that some stories are stronger than others; not all stories stand alone well.
BOTTOM LINE: An essential part of any fan of the author’s work and a short-form entree into the author’s style.
Rebooting authorial careers is nothing new. Alis Rasmussen, after writing four novels in the late ’80s, rebooted herself with the pen name that most people know her best as: Kate Elliott. While mostly writing long novels and series, and being known for writing to such length, she has also turned out a few shorter pieces over her career. The Very Best of Kate Elliott collects all of the short fiction she has written in her over twenty-year career.
As such, the stories in The Very Best of Kate Elliott overlap with all of the major series in terms of publication. While some of the stories are original, some of these stories her work are side tales to those series rather than original works. Often, the characters here are original or at best marginal to the series. Thus, for the most part, these stories stand independently of the worlds in which they are set, giving a hint of the vaster worlds beyond the limited words of their pages.
“Riding the Shore of the river of Death” is set in her wide-ranging Crown of Stars series but focuses on a small story of a chieftain’s daughter looking to find her own path, her own destiny. On the other hand, “The Memory of Peace” is a powerful story that reminded me as much of the 1990’s Balkan conflict as the early Renaissance Italianate city slowly falling apart around a young woman struggling to survive. A couple of these stories, especially “The Sunseekers” explore her Jaran space opera universe, a welcome return to a wide canvas where she might set more stories someday. “To Be a Man” is especially welcome, as it breaks the strict POV of the Spiritwalker series to present a side story of Cat’s half brother, Rory. It’s also extremely funny.
These stories and the others in the collection explore the concerns and themes that one can find in her larger works and series. The challenges and role of women in society, especially when said women cannot or will not conform to the limited roles that society has deemed within them. Women doing heroic things, both in the manner of more male protagonists and also getting the job done in ways a typical male hero would never think of. Anna, for example, in “Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine” gets past the many obstacles on her own quest with some fancy thing and not a little bit of social engineering. Like her novels, stories like this show that Elliott likes to show different kinds and forms of heroism.
The other major theme in Elliott’s fiction, especially visible at short length, is the nature and abuses of power. Not just against women (although that is of special interest to her) but the problems of tyranny and overweening force and power against the powerless. The captured protagonist in “The Gates of Joriun”, is treated with capricious and vicious cruelty, a true abuse of power and authority for venal ends. Other protagonists within these stories explore how societal institutions, personal, political and economic, can lead to oppression and often violent reactions and outbursts to it.
In addition to the stories, the collection includes a number of the online essays that Elliott has written over the years. Readers at SF Signal here will, for example, recall The Omniscient Breasts, her study of “the male gaze” in fiction, first published in this space. These essays explicate the concerns and issues that Elliott has explored in her fiction in a much more direct and unflinching format. Readers who somehow miss the themes and concerns that the author explores in her fiction can see them here in unmistakable terms. If there was any doubt as to why it was Kate who was selected to read the Hugo best fan writer acceptance speech of another powerful voice in fantasy, Kameron Hurley, these essays make it absolutely clear why it was that she was selected.
The length and depth of Kate’s work are about the only things that this collection of stories and essays lack. The themes, characterization, social structures and worldbuilding that is a hallmark and highlight of her fiction are all here, but the shorter format doesn’t capture the deep immersion into story that her work also brings. Fans of her novels should not hesitate to pick up The Very Best of Kate Elliott; readers new to her work can find the themes and style of the author in evidence in this collection, although not that deep immersive feel that her novels bring.