Combine power-hungry dragons and realm-travelling magic with a contemporary fantasy setting and you get something like Kate Elliott’s novella The Keeper’s Six, which sees wearily determined mum Esther breaking the rules and getting her adventuring party back together to rescue her kidnapped son, Daniel. Despite being banned from travelling the Beyond (the space between worlds) by the bureaucracy of the Concilium, Esther’s Hex–a six-strong group each with their own unique set of skills, aptitudes and magics–quickly regroup in the wake of Daniel’s disappearance, setting out to find whoever’s responsible for his kidnapping and bring him back. Given that Esther was to blame for their licence being revoked though, there are some lingering tensions still unresolved between them.
As they brave the dangers of the Beyond, Esther and her companions find themselves dealing with everything from conniving dragon bosses to byzantine bureaucracy, largely (but not entirely) eschewing anything too physical in favour of subterfuge, speed, hard-nosed negotiations and, surprisingly, the introduction of worker rights to dragons’ minions. It’s a fairly straightforward quest plot on the surface, but Elliott focuses less on fighting and more on Esther’s internal struggle and the dynamic within the Hex, adding depth to the characters and exploring themes of acceptance and forgiveness, family bonds (both flesh and blood, and found family) and a mother’s determination to do whatever it takes to protect the people she loves. As such, this is in fact anything but your standard fantasy quest story.
It’s not necessarily grimdark, at least at a first glance–there’s a lot here that will appeal to readers looking for manipulative dragons, bickering adventuring parties and vividly-drawn fantasy settings, but while there are some dark moments the tone is generally more hopeful. Really it’s a subversion of a lot of the usual fantasy tropes, playing around with things like dragons being conniving gang bosses rather than noble sages, and the protagonist as an older, experienced mother. If you look past the surface details though, this does perhaps tap into that sense of realism (if that’s the right word) that grimdark at its best can focus in on, with a protagonist who’s very much not the glorious hero, and who has to work hard to get where she needs to go with no sense of destiny to help her along the way.
It also takes place in a genuinely amazing setting, which cleverly positions Earth as just a small, largely unimportant backwater in the context of all the worlds linked together by the Beyond and the magic of the Hexes. The magic system itself is largely focused on enabling people to navigate the Beyond and protect themselves (or at least try to) when they’re travelling, while the dragons are very much part of the bureaucratic system, contributing to a definite power imbalance and, on occasion, some of the funniest moments of the book. There’s a lot to fit into a short page count, in terms of both narrative and worldbuilding, and as such this definitely rewards readers willing to be patient and embrace the constraints of a novella, but it’s well worth the patience and understanding.
It’s hard not to wish this was longer, with more space to really explore its locations and ideas, but flip that on its head and you have a setting that’s ripe for further exploration and more adventures! As it stands though, while this definitely leaves the reader wanting more (which is a good thing, really) it does still deliver an impactful and brilliantly entertaining story, full of great characters and offering something a little different to your regular fantasy adventure. Highly recommended.