Autumn has just arrived in my garden but I’m already thinking ahead to the long winter evenings. So this week I’m recommending a big read – `King’s Dragon’ by American author, Kate Elliot. This is Volume One in her `Crown of Stars’ series and it’s available in paperback or on Kindle. `Crown of Stars’ is a story told in seven, yes seven, fat volumes published between 1997 and 2006. I told you this was a big read. I like the American covers for `Crown of Stars’ better than the British ones, but that’s a matter of taste. In either set of covers, I also prefer this Fantasy epic to George R.R. Martin’s gore-spattered `Song of Ice and Fire’.

Elliot’s series is set in an intriguing early medieval world. Its sweeping storylines deal with clashes between races, cultures and religions and with a long foretold catastrophe which threatens to overwhelm whole civilizations. Most of the action of `King’s Dragon’ takes place in the kingdoms of Wendar and Varre. In this culture, potential heirs to a throne have to prove their fertility by siring or giving birth to a child. A prologue deals with the origins of two children who are destined to play a major role in the fate of their world and the spheres beyond it. Young Prince Henry has produced a son with an Aoi woman, who insists on returning to her own dimension as soon as she has recovered from giving birth. A mysterious circle of Watchers are dismayed by the birth of this half-human boy, Sanglant, and decide that another special child must be brought into the world to defeat him.

The main story begins many years later when Henry has become King of Wendar and Varre and is hoping to revive the Holy Dariyan Empire.  His illegitimate son, Sanglant  is leading the King’s Dragons, an elite group of soldiers. Henry’s kingdom is under threat from the Eika, brutal dragon-men from across the sea, and from his own half-sister, Sabella, who believes that she should be Queen. Henry needs to appoint one of his legitimate children as his heir but he loves Sanglant the most. Meanwhile, the narrative follows the fortunes of two other motherless young people, Alain and Liath. Alain’s mother died when he was born and he has no idea who his father was. He has been brought up by a merchant family but he is pledged to the local monastery. This destiny changes when the monastery is destroyed by Eika raiders and Alain encounters the legendary Lady of Battles and vows to serve her. He is called up to work in the stables of the local nobleman, Count Lavastine, where he discovers that he has a remarkable ability to control the Count’s hellish pack of hounds. After the sudden death of her sorceress mother, Liath and her father were on the run for years. They eventually take the risk of settling in the village of Heart’s Rest, where Liath receives an unusual education in astronomy, maths and magic.  When her father is murdered, all Liath has left is his `Book of Secrets’. She is forced to become the slave and concubine of handsome clergyman, Hugh, who is seeking forbidden magical knowledge.

As war breaks out, Alain and Liath’s lives become even more dangerous. Alain’s religious beliefs are challenged by the tormented Frater Agius and he discovers that a woman who should be a force for good is a cunning and ruthless sorceress. Liath is rescued from Hugh by the enigmatic Wolfhere and she and her best friend Hanna become King’s Eagles – royal messengers. When they ride to the city of Gent, which is being besieged by the Eika, Liath meets and falls in love with Prince Sanglant. Caught up in Sabella’s rebellion, Alain has to make a momentous decision when an Eika captive is threatened with a cruel death. Both Liath and Alain will play an important part in the struggle for the throne of Wendar and Varre, but there are even more terrible conflicts ahead…

My summary only hints at the richness and intricacy of Elliot’s plotting and it cannot show how well-realised the setting is. Elliot is unusual in taking her inspiration from a range of Western European cultures that flourished after the fall of the Roman Empire in the period sometimes known as the Dark Ages. This was a violent era in which domestic architecture was lacking in basic comforts but the clothes and jewels of the ruling elite were particularly sumptuous. Kings and warriors were often illiterate, learning was virtually confined to the Christian church and secular and sacred authority were intertwined. Elliot is impressively well read but her scholarship is  used to enhance the story, not stifle it. As she says in a `Bibliographic Note’, taking liberties with history is `half the fun of fantasy’. She has certainly had fun with the sexual politics of the Dark Ages. There were formidable queens and abbesses at this time, but Elliot has taken it one step further. In her world, women are considered to be more suited to intellectual life and administrative roles than men. Women dominate the Church of the Unities, which worships the Lady, and her son, the Lord, while Early Christian writers have changed gender, so that St Augustine becomes St Augustina. `King’s Dragon’ is certainly the first Fantasy novel I’ve read in which the arch-villain is a female Bishop – but there are good female `Biscops’ and Clerics in the story too. One of them, Royal Cleric Rosvita is busy compiling a history of the Wendish peoples. This is one of the many ways in which Elliot adds depth to the story by giving her fictional world a complex and convincing past.

Excellent `world-making’ isn’t always enough to keep me reading on. I’ve abandoned several Fantasy series recently because I didn’t find the leading characters compelling or sympathetic enough to stay with them through hundreds, or even thousands, of pages. I require heroines and heroes I can care about and villains who are complex and fascinating, and that is what Elliot gives her readers.  She quickly won my sympathies for Sanglant, Liath and Alain, who are all deprived of a normal family life and then suffer a series of traumatic events which shatter and remake their lives. The mental and physical abuse which Liath endures when she is Hugh’s slave is particularly harrowing and casts a long shadow over the story. Since `King’s Dragon’ is a tale of war and treachery, it naturally contains a great deal of violence but Elliot always writes with great empathy for the innocent victims of that violence.  As the series continues, the conflicts are seen from the point of view of ordinary people as well as warriors, royalty and clergywomen.  At first, the ferocious Eika seem to be a standard Fantasy monsters but when Alain forges a relationship with the captive Eika prince, `Fifth Brother’ we begin to learn about the curious biology and culture of this race.

`Fifth Brother’ is changed by his encounter with Alain and becomes curious about the `softskins’ and their dual Deity. That is typical of the surprising ways in which characters develop during `Crown of Stars’. For example, in `King’s Dragon’, I assumed that Hanna, the innkeeper’s daughter, was a mere sidekick to Liath, but she soon grows into an interesting heroine in her own right. Hanna bravely embarks on a totally new kind of life in order to protect her friend, but she is hiding complicated feelings for Hugh, even though he is obsessed with dominating Liath. This is just one of many long-running story lines in the series. There is more than enough passion, and hatred, conspiracy and sibing rivalry, war and murder, mystery and magic to justify those seven volumes. Elliot is particularly good at setting up mysteries. `King’s Dragon’ has a satisfying story-arc of its own but you will be left with a lot of questions. What is the purpose that Sanglant was born for and who is the child destined to oppose him? Have we met any of the circle of Watchers and what are the plans of the sorcerer who now leads the Eika? If you enjoy `King’s Dragon’, you will have a whole winter’s worth of reading to look forward to. Until next week…