Thursday, December 8, 2022

Microreview [book]: The Keeper's Six by Kate Elliott

A Mother trying to find her kidnapped son...but she is an interdimensional traveler, and her son’s kidnapper is a Dragon.

Esther is awoken in the middle of the night by a cryptic call for help from her son. Moving quickly, despite her being on the outs for a past transgression, Esther gets the “band” together for an interdimensional trip to find and retrieve her son. When it turns out that it is a Dragon, and the Dragon wants to make a deal to get her son back, the stakes for Esther, her son Daniel, and the rest of her team just got much higher and hotter. And when it turns out that this is tied to that aforementioned past transgression, things truly are getting complicated.

This is the story of Kate Elliott’s The Keeper’s Six.

The story at the core of The Keeper’s Six, for me, was clearly the maternal bond between Esther and her son Daniel, and what Esther can and is willing to do in order to get her son back from the clutches of the Dragon that has kidnapped him. Everything else builds off of that relationship, from the other relationships in the story, to the worldbuilding, and in fact, the entirety of the plot, including revelations as to what has gone on before, and why. Like nearly every other Kate Elliott book or story I’ve read, the characters come first, and like a goodly portion of Elliott’s work, her main character is not a dewy eyed youth learning the ways of power for the first time, but an experienced woman, a mother, even. 

There are, of course, writing challenges when your main character knows much more than the reader, and you want to bring across a heck of a lot of worldbuilding (this IS a Kate Elliott story after all). Elliott solves this problem, and deepens Esther in the process, by adding Shahin to the mix.  As the plot unfolds, and we meet the kidnapper of Daniel, Shahin, one of the servitors of the Dragon, Shahin is, even though he is a servitor of a Dragon, extremely untutored in the ways of Keeps, entrepots and the Beyond (the interdimensional space). Since he gets attached to Esther’s team as factotum for the Dragon, this provides Esther, our sole POV character and narrator, a chance to explain things to him, and thus to us.  It does take a little bit to get to Shahin, so the canny reader who has read Elliott before will ride along until some of the explanations are forthcoming.

There is a lot of layering of the plot and worldbuilding. Confined to novella length, this story feels like a short story for Elliott (who, as you know, Bob, tends to write in large widescreen format. Very large widescreen format). This results in a lot of information density packed into a shorter space than usual for her, and so the story is particularly rich in detail, be it character, worldbuilding, and plot. The story rewards attention, sprinkles clues, asks questions, and a clever reader may get a leg up on that.  A hint: the names of the characters matter greatly in this story. 

In the main, though, Elliott posits a multiversal world where travelers can travel and trade between worlds, but the interstitial space, the Beyond, is *highly* dangerous. Only certain people can do it, and the optimum (and indeed maximum size) of a team to travel the Beyond is Six. Everyone has their own roles and positions on a team, and they are all important. For instance, Esther is a Lantern, with the magical ability to produce light and see in darkness. This is important in the Beyond where the periods of brightness are, in fact, the deadliest. I kept thinking of Apocalypse World style splatbooks for the six roles on a Keeper’s team (and now you see where the title comes in) and how they have niche protection and important jobs. I did have questions on how people gain these roles, but the relative economy of words meant that not all of my questions on magic and worldbuilding get answered (and frankly, over-explaining to the point of paralysis is NOT something Elliott does. She tells us enough)

This limitation to six people on a team also changes the focus of her interdimensional/multiversal world from potential conquests and war to one of trade, commerce and exchange. You simply couldn’t get an army from one world to another, it would be logistically and practically impossible to try and, say, conquer Earth1. Instead, Keeps (the locations that impinge both in the Beyond as well as one of the worlds of the multiverse) engage in trade, commerce and act as waystations. Although there are physical threats in the beyond, in general, violence is not a good answer to problems. The kidnapped Daniel is a Keeper, which means in a Six’s team, he manages and keeps the home fires burning, literally. So even if he wasn’t Esther’s son, his loss is a Big Deal, since it threatens the Keep itself.2

An interesting strain in the novel is the idea of hospitality and the bonds and strictures of guests and visiting places. In a interdimensional space where the environment, to say nothing of other threats, can kill you, the rules of guests and hosting people at Keeps, Hoards and entrepots are important, crucial. Even for all the conflict in this universe, what Elliott brings across in her multiverse world here is how important those customs and strictures are, and those who manage such hospitality, and those who receive it.2

There is also a lot of wry humor in the novel, too, especially when we find out what Daniel has been doing while imprisoned in the Dragon’s hoard, and the results of his time there, among a lot of character humor as well. Esther’s team know each other, have a history, and thus have a lot of banter, dialogue (and yes, conflict) to go along with it. 

The Keeper’s Six is a complete story in one novella length piece. If you have been Elliott-curious and want to start somewhere, I think this is a great place to start, even more so than Servant Mage, which feels more like the first part of a longer work. This story is contained (although I admit, there is a big fat hook for more stories set in this verse--and I would be very down for more stories following that hook). 

Kate Elliott’s work is full of rich worldbuilding, magic, cultures, environments, excellent plotting, and above all of those, deep and interesting characters that come alive on the page. The Keeper’s Six embodies the virtues of her work, for fans old and new alike. It’s been a very long while since Elliott has gone interdimensional with her writing, and I am, to be clear, hoping for more from Esther and her team.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 For an enthralling mother-son story with strong characters and bonds.

+1 for excellent touches of humor and levity amongst a fascinating multiversal world

Penalties: -1 A couple of pieces of worldbuilding not explained might have been welcome. Maybe.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference: Elliott, Kate.The Keeper's Six [Tor dot com, 2022]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.


1. It should be noted that in the world of The Keeper’s Six, Earth is a *backwater*, a minor trading world at best. Earth governments do not know of the Beyond (something not true of more central worlds) 

2. Although we don’t spend much time there, the Hawaiian location of the Keep made me want to visit Hawaii. 

3. As I wrote this review, a political stunt regarding the transport of refugees comes very much to mind. Not that the treatment of refugees isn’t anything new, but it was particularly poignant for me that I read this book at the same time.