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text banner saying Kiss Off, Adversary! With a smaller text below saying a kate elliott celebration

A few years ago after I fell in love with Kate Elliott's Spiritwalker series, I became determined to read all her work because I loved the ideas she was exploring, the makeup of her worlds, and the way she focused on the inner lives of women while still creating interesting men without letting them take over the narrative. According to popular culture, this can be Very Difficult because Dudes are "Normal" and "Easier to Write".

Also, SPOILER: A Passage of Stars totally delivers on the cool leading lady, with some caveats for extremely dubious consent issues re: the central het...romance? I'll return to that point later.

Since Cold Magic and its sequels I've discovered that Kate Elliott writes hella long novels. They're dense political stories full of examinations of gender and race and how those intersect within different societies/cultures. They're epic in scope; her worlds feel massive. This is accompanied by huge books that you have to sink into and give some time. I'm delving, but I'm only partially down into the true ~core~ of her work. Once I get into the Crown of Stars series, I feel like I'll have a better grip. She has a lot of work. I'm playing this game and it's taking me forever. I made this so why did I make it so hard!? WHEN WILL I GET A BINGO??? (Don't @ me, completionists who had a head start on me. My envy is deep.)

bingo card made up of Kate Elliott book covers

It's interesting to discover an author and go deep into their back list that you had no idea existed instead of discovering a newer author and following them along their career. That's been the majority of my experience with authors I've loved. If newer authors did have a back list it was smaller and didn't have a seven book epic fantasy series waiting for me to look at its combined page count and feel faint. It's also been fascinating because Elliott has changed and grown a lot as an author. Her development on writing about gender and how she contextualizes and discusses race has become more incisive and thorough. Her ability to pace a novel has gotten better so going in reverse through her work makes her improvement as an author incredibly stark. Getting to see this process as a reader is comforting on another level as a writer. Someone whose writing and ideas I respect so much has grown and changed; just because I feel stalled and crunched in my own writing means I only need to keep writing and learning. So everyone gets this review! Please send all thanks to Kate for her inspirational presence in my literary life.

A Passage of Stars was published in the 1990s, while I was busy breaking into the Mario/Luigi domestic AU scene on notebook paper with one of those giant pencils they give to kids when they have trouble gripping regular pencils. cover for A Passage of Stars Luckily, A Passage of Stars is much better than my early fanfic. Elliott, even back then, was writing the kind of fiction we all say we want now: diverse casts of characters that are fully realized, women who are three-dimensional people with complicated lives, and hella adventures.

I went in with the assumption (I know, I know) that because this was published so early and before the SFF field started tackling their gender/race problems that this novel would be heteronormative and white and dudes would feature more heavily than in later novels by Elliott. There are a lot of dudes in the main cast who get away with being dudes (Heredes and Kyosti, I'm looking at you). But some of the supporting characters are wildly different! The main character, Lily, and her family are Asian, from Vietnamese ancestors. Brown people are everywhere and in a variety of roles with their own struggles that the narrative doesn't dismiss. Women are in multiple types of leadership positions in different cultural groups. Women have kids and families and complicated pasts. There is (I think the book does enough coding to make it explicit, but this is me so we have to take it with a grain of salt) a pretty dedicated queer couple who are talented, are good friends with Lily, save the day, and they don't die! Once I discovered this my feelings about the book went THROUGH THE ROOF. It's strange what kind of things become celebratory. No dead queer-coded characters! Party!

A Passage of Stars is the beginning of a classic bildungsroman (IN SPACE), and Lily escapes her mining family into the wider universe with her robot pal (!!!!!), Bach, to save her kidnapped teacher. In doing so, she gets caught up in her teacher's past. She discovers that there's a burgeoning war between the established government and a group of people called the Ridani, who are badly treated and oppressed throughout the system. Not only does Lily have to navigate these politics, she also has to stay hidden from the people who used and abused her teacher, Heredes, before she knew him. All in all, for such a short book, there's a lot of politics that can be confusing, and sometimes the explanations didn't quite gel for me. But it's also a great planetary romance that manages to make the world feel huge and the stakes fraught. That makes up for the bemusing sections where I didn't quite see the connections the book made.

Lily is wonderful, but self-assured and well-trained is about her limit. She does a lot of growing up in this first book. I like that she doesn't always get her way; early on she loses a potential ally due to lack of power/influence and later on faces harder losses, too. She's often clueless about situations she finds herself in, but adapts quickly. Emotionally she's distant from deep connections with the exception of Heredes and later a man she allies with for political gain. One big gaping hole in this book is Lily's lack of female friendships and partnerships that are sustained throughout the novel. She does meet women and have solid friendships with them, but they are on the periphery of her exploits. Her main relationships are with men. This makes her sexual relationship with Kyosti, her captor-turned-ally, all the more tense. She lies to herself about how she feels about him and doesn't deal at all with his possessive streak, he lies to her about his origins and his needs, and much of the tension of this novel is purchased from watching whether or not they get past their own hangups that threaten to drag each other down. Because of her emotional distance, she often comes off as someone obsessed with work and a lot lonely. She seems very isolated toward the end of novel where events straight up explode in the most disastrous way possible for a young woman who needs true emotional support (which she isn't getting from Kyosti).

LEGIT FEELINGS: a solid half of what kept me going with this book was the main romance (although "romance" is not the right term, but I'm not sure what else to call it, because Lily makes multiple, active consensual choices without manipulation some of the time). Kyosti is such an arrogant, emotionally manipulative butthead, but just soft-hearted and compelling enough for me to go, "What is up with you, dude?". I wanted to know how he and Lily made things work or if they even could give the reality of Kyosti's past and Lily's potential future as a revolutionary.

One interesting thing about the sexual issues this book brings up: it seems to take a liberal view of women choosing sexual partners. It felt like polyamory in some situations might be more normal than monogamy? There are multiple divides between Lily and Kyosti, where Kyosti continually pressures Lily into monogamy, after using majorly dubious techniques to start a sexual relationship with her in the beginning that never quite get unpacked. There's a core of an idea here about power imbalances, because Kyosti benefits in certain ways (age and influence) but Lily benefits in others (solid self-esteem and not suffering from massive amounts of PTSD), but I'm not quite certain it's explored enough to make the relationship be "healthy" as we might define it today.

Add to that the fact that women have more freedom in their sexual relationships in certain situations, but contraceptives seem to be illegal or at least not widely available and it's a very chewy dichotomy between the idea of sexual liberation of women but with the state/military still controlling reproductive rights unless you're outside their system. For a book written so long ago this shouldn't still be a relevant subject, but unfortunately, it is. This wasn't a big part of the novel at all—Lily isn't considering kids yet—but it comes up with some side characters, and I thought it was worth noting because I'm curious if it will be relevant in the other books.

My only other hang ups with this novel were the robot pal, Bach, and his speech, plus the way the Ridani spoke. I loved Bach and appreciated his relationship with Lily a whole lot. But Bach spoke in both in melody and...verse? Middle English? I've forgotten all the proper terms. But there was a lot of excerpts where there would be verses and stories that read like poetry (MY NEMESIS) which contained connective plot tissue that I couldn't quite understand. I was reminded about the change that fanfic goes through when culture shifts. I loved so much fic back in the late 90s and early 00s that's still around, but when I go back and try to read it, the narrative sounds so weird and old. It's clear that those segments of fandom changed their language and narrative style over the years and I went with them because I read pretty widely. It's the same here; it reads like SFF from another time ( was so that stands to reason), when conventions and the way you engaged with a text were different. The writing style of the mainstream SFF publishing industry evolved!

The Ridani spoke in a patois that was often very hard for me to follow, perhaps because books don't tend to do this in this specific way much anymore. I'm out of practice. Hilariously, I have a very hard time with these types of things in text, but out loud I'm much better at understanding. I eventually went back and read them aloud and grokked it (thank you black ladies at former $dayjob for teaching me how to listen to different types of English).

This is definitely the first book in a trilogy, which means a lot of threads are left hanging at the end. Many of the political ideas regarding revolution, protest, and power aren't resolved. Few of the relationships have a clear path forward without serious discussion. Success for the political movement that Lily has allied herself with is uncertain, especially given how she feels about its leader. But all in all this novel was a delightful surprise considering its age and my unfair assumptions. It contains most of the things I love from Kate Elliott's work, and I'm urged on to the next volume. I'm super glad it was republished for me to read. All hail the digital revolution. \o/

Other Posts in this Series

"Where have you been all my life?" Jaran by Kate Elliott by Mieneke
Giveaway! Court of Fives & Poisoned Blade by Kate Elliott
"The History of the World Begins In Ice" — Cold Magic by Susan


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