The Highroad Trilogy (A Path of Stars, Revolution’s Shore, The Price of Ransom), Kate Elliott (1990)
Review by Electra Pritchett
Kate Elliott has spent the 21st century writing epic fantasy, so there are probably quite a few people unaware that she wrote science fiction novels in the 20th. But by dint of ebook distribution, all of Elliott’s SF backlist (some originally published under another name) is now available again: these are the three volumes of the Highroad Trilogy (as by Alis A Rasmussen) and the four Chronicles of the Jaran.
I picked the Highroad Trilogy as my introduction to Elliott’s SF because, unlike the Jaran books (which were published later but come first in terms of internal chronology), the Highroad books are complete in and of themselves, and because the protagonist of the trilogy, one Lilyaka Ransome, dissatisfied daughter of a mining clan on a barren planet in a backwater system, almost immediately leaves said planet on a chase after her kidnapped mentor. Like another more famous protagonist from a galactic backwater pulled off-world by figures from their mentor’s past, Lily quickly finds herself mixed up with a rebellion against an unjust intergalactic government, but over the course of the trilogy she also finds herself coming out the other side of that rebellion, along with the ragtag band of comrades she’s gathered along the way, and taking a more uncertain road.
If it weren’t for the fact that tastes seem to have swung away from this kind of vivid space opera – and the Highroad Trilogy certainly has a lot of verve for a set of 25-year old novels – there’d be very little in these books to date them; they contain all of Elliott’s signature strengths, just at shorter length. Her novels are remarkable for consistent inclusion of protagonists from a variety of backgrounds, many of them women and people of color, as well as for her depth of worldbuilding; in a science fiction setting, this means interesting, truly alien aliens with cultural depth and a variety of human societies with different histories, attitudes, and governments, as well as people within those societies with conflicting views, often to go along with their differing class backgrounds. It also means a lot of action scenes and space battles; Lily is a martial arts expert by long training, as is her mentor, and the friends she gathers around her all have their own, fully fleshed-out pasts, and the skills to go with them.
Another signature of Elliott’s work is her focus on social change, whether by means of violence – a revolution – or otherwise. Lily finds herself by chance and by principle allied with the galactic revolution of one Jehane, who proclaims that he wants to bring equality to the corrupt Central. It’s certainly true that things are bad for many people, including the oppressed human sect called the Ridanis, who are treated as omnipresent pariahs but have their own story of having come “over the highroad” and lost the way back – but with the prophecy among them that Jehane will come one day to lead them home. The support of the Ridani is crucial for the successes that Jehane achieves, but the prejudices against them go deep, and it’s part and parcel of Elliott’s grasp on how social change is actually accomplished that the narrative doesn’t minimize that.
Elliott has remarked that these books were partly inspired by Edmund Wilson’s history of revolutionary socialism, To the Finland Station (1940), which yields another perspective on Jehane’s revolution: he’s Lenin, and Lily and her friends wind up allied with his Trotsky, a true believer and the better man. That association sets them on a path back over the so-called highroad, back to the human galactic empire which the characters of the Jaran books were struggling to free from alien domination. Generations later, after the successful end to that uprising, Lily and her friends, used to violence, iniquity, and war, seem practically barbaric – which opens up a complex narrative dialogue about the use of violence itself, a dialogue the books are too canny to attempt to foreclose.
Overlaying a proletarian revolution onto a science fiction trilogy structure does interesting things to said structure, which isn’t entirely surprising given Elliott’s penchant for arranging plot and emotional beats at less familiar points than many other writers. Quite simply, she’s too good to fall back on the genre’s structural clichés, and this is another factor that makes the Highroad books still feel fresh.
The one dated element lies in the portrayal of Lily’s lover, Kyosti, who gets involved with Lily under false pretences and whose actions are revealed to be, given later revelations about his past, deeply problematic. Although Kyosti is in some ways a deeply romantic figure and the narrative by the end seems to have inflicted a kind of punishment on him for his actions, I didn’t share the full acceptance that Lily comes to. Elliott’s later works certainly contain much more complex deconstructions of this kind of mysterious love interest character.
That aspect aside, the Highroad Trilogy stands on its own without any knowledge of the Jaran books, and the books are well worth reading for their great characters, interesting plotting, and complex thinking about revolutions, violence, and social change – all with spaceships.