It’s funny, sometimes, how you fall into a book. Recently, I was reading Appropriately Aggressive: Essays About Books, Corgis, and Feminism by Krista D. Ball (although not the subject of this review, I recommend this book as Krista’s brand of sarcastic wit provides a highly entertaining delivery mechanism for serious essays about women in literature and the craft of writing). In an essay about how to support women in literature, the following passage caught my attention: “Pick up an author’s debut novel. I can recommend Kate Elliott’s as a great standaone alt-Victorian portal fantasy.” What?! Alt-Victorian portal fantasy?? Uh, yes, please! I feverishly texted Krista. “What is the name of this book?” She quickly replied, “The Labyrinth Gate!” and I couldn’t be happier to have stumbled in to such a satisfying read. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 12/01/1988
STAR RATING: 5/5 ✶
With marriage comes change, and for Sanjay and Chryse, that change is literally world altering. After their wedding reception, they accidentally drop a gift—a pack of special tarot cards—onto an elevator floor. The cards scatter, the lights go out, and all at once, they find themselves transported to Anglia. It’s a strange parallel world not unlike Victorian England, but matriarchal in nature and shaped by powerful sorcery. While fleeing a riot in the streets, the pair is rescued by aristocrats Julian and Kate, the first of many new friends and adventures. To get home, they must find a treasure in the labyrinth city of Pariam—a quest that becomes ever more daunting as it attracts the attention of the evil Princess Blessa.
There are many enjoyable elements of The Labyrinth Gate, but the element that really shines for me is its fast-paced, plot-driven story. To understand why this book’s plot is so compelling, let’s first take a look at the world in which it’s set. As Krista points out, this book is an alt-Victorian portal fantasy, but what exactly does that mean? Our FMC and MMC, Chryse and Sanjay (I actually consider this an ensemble cast, but more on that later), are magically transported from modern-day US to an alternate Victorian-era England, where places and names are somewhat familiar, and yet different, but the patriarchy of the peerage and Christianity are both turned upside down, and a matriarchy governs all aspects of society. Layered on top of this alternate foundation is magic. The world is filled with Tarot-card driven sorcery, goblins, ogres, and elves, and a lost pagan history that speaks of a secret source of even greater magical power. Chyrse and Sanjay are thrust into a quest to find this treasure, motivated as it is said to be the key to finding their way back home, while powerful sorcerers vie for the find, their own agendas far more sinister.
Several aspects of our own Victorian-era England are preserved. Here, the significant class divide between the aristocracy and the commoners is ever present and shapes societal expectations and moraes. In fact, Chryse and Sanjay enter the world amid a riot in a lower-class, poverty-stricken part of town. There are violent uprisings, and the commoners are pushing for a new, more equal way of life. Herein lies one of the main themes of this book – the old ways versus new and the rocky transition that exists between the two. Elliott presents this theme to the reader again by weaving sacred holidays into the ritual that becomes central to uncovering the secrets of the gates. The pseudo-Christian holidays are celebrated as the year moves along, but these holidays are simply replacements for the old pagan celebrations – much like was done in our own world – and these holidays held far more power in the magic that surrounds their original intent. Old versus new and the cycle of time are concepts at the forefront of this book.
The search for the treasure of the labyrinth via a massive archaeological expedition forms the backbone of the plot. Chryse, Sanjay, and their new group of friends (and frienemies!) travel North to the site of the mythical Pariam in the hopes of uncovering the secret buried therein. Throughout the preparation for and during their quest, unexpected events, both magical and mundane, start happening to members of their party, those they left behind, and in the area surrounding the dig that leave the reader speculating about how these clues all fits together. The story is most definitely a mystery, and Elliott plants so many of these questions in preparation for the ending that you cannot help but frantically turn pages to find out how it all comes together. I honestly do not want to provide any more detail about the plot than that, because further discussion will invariably lead to spoilers, and I would be truly remiss as a reviewer if I ruined any of the surprises this book has in store for you!
Another element of this book that I unexpectedly appreciated was the vagaries surrounding the prophecy and ritual central to the plot. Generally, I’m the type of reader that wants everything explained. I am an engineer after all – there must be a succinct explanation for everything! But the softness and purposeful haze surrounding magic, the fact that the prophecy and ritual are veiled in mystery and ambiguity, actual serves the tone of this book perfectly and surprised me in how satisfying it was. In fact, it struck such a chord with me that I was reminded of Guy Gavriel Kay’s 2021 J.R.R Tolkien Lection on Fantasy Literature (if you haven’t seen it, please do yourself a favor and listen to his insightful talk) in which he makes a case for leaving some questions unanswered in your story, especially in regards to magic. In other words, leave some magic in magic. To me, what Elliott accomplishes in this book is a perfect example of what Kay was referring to in his lecture. The prophecy and the ritual felt inherently magical to me – other-worldly – and that made for a far more rewarding experience than I would have expected.
I said that this book is plot-driven, and I believe that to be a true statement, but that doesn’t mean this book lacks in characterization. The characters are developed and presented (just like the world-building) in what is just enough detail to support and enhance the plot such that the plot remains the focal point. The ensemble cast forms right from the beginning; as soon as Chryse and Sanjay are transported to Anglia, they are rescued from a riot by Julian and Kate. From that moment forward, the cast grows to include characters that range from Julian’s opinionated, but wise, old Aunt Laetitia to the mysteriously evil Earl of Elen who finances their trip North and for unknown reasons wishes to marry the archaeology professor’s daughter. This unlikely crew have such varied personalities, backgrounds, and motivations, and yet they are all pointed toward the same purpose: to uncover the treasure at Pariam.
One of the things that really stood out to me about this book was the casual and natural way interpersonal relationships are depicted and how simple, but meaningful interactions are sprinkled thorughout the story alongside the plot. There is a familiarity that develops among the characters, and the author interleaves talk of friendship, sex, love, and marriage nonchalantly which lends an authenticity to the various relationships that I found delightful, especially within a high-stakes fantasy setting. The relationship-building, which took unexpected and starkly different paths depending on the couple, was remarkable in and of itself, but even more impressive when considering how each couples’ path added a richness to the story that would not have otherwise been there. The ultimate outcomes of these pairings varied significantly, and I found that to be a unique and adeptly contrived aspect of this book.
I’m legitimately baffled as to why this book isn’t more widely known and read. It is a fantastic example of standalone, high fantasy that had me reading well into the night. If you are a fan of plot-heavy mystery, alternate historical world-building with a healthy serving of magic, and casual relationship-building between delightful and varied characters from an ensemble cast, The Labyrinth Gate might just be the book for you!