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Shadowhawk reviews Courtney Schafer’s 2011 debut novel, the first in the Shattered Sigil adventure fantasy series.
“If I could give out an actual award for best novel of the year,The Whitefire Crossing would be at the top of the list as one of the strongest contenders.” ~The Founding Fields
From all the reading I’ve done so far this year, one thing has become very clear to me: epic fantasy is no longer the big hulking juggernaut it once was. To be specific, epic fantasy that is defined by stories where you have elves, dragons, dwarves, goblins, trolls, orcs and so on, in the vein of the Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Warhammer Fantasy, Lord of the Rings and so on. Don’t get me wrong, these books are still very popular and a big part of the market, but from my own experience, these big sprawling settings are facing some stiff challenges from other subgenres of fantasy: urban, parnormal, historical and others. And even when you get novels (or series) that are “mainstream” fantasy, the focus is quite often on human worlds with only the bare minimum of the fantastical creatures and races that once dominated the genre. Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations novels are a good example of this.
And joining the growing trend is what author Courtney Schafer has termed “adventure fantasy”, a fantasy story where it is all about the adventures that the characters go through, the journey itself, rather than the grandiosity of the beginning and the end. Now, you might be wondering just what it is that makes adventure fantasy different from other fantasy subgenres, or more specifically, how is adventure fantasy any different from epic fantasy (examples above). Remember that scene from Fellowship of the Ring where the Fellowship is crossing the Misty Mountains (aka the Redhorn Pass, or the Caradhras Peak) but are forced to turn back because of the intense snow storm stirred on by Saruman? Take that entire scene sequence and imagine a novel where half the story is crossing those mountains as part of a caravan and with the possibility of the most powerful (and nastiest) mages hunting you down. That’s what The Whitefire Crossing is about, an adventure through the Whitefire mountains along the most treacherous of routes.
To me, the term adventure fantasy constitutes a very specific imagery although there is a lot of overlap between it and epic/mainstream fantasy. Michael J. Sullivan’s Emerald Storm and Alex Bledsoe’s Wake of the Bloody Angel and Cassandra R. Clarke’s The Assassin’s Curse can all be considered to be adventure fantasy novels, as well as being “nautical fantasies” in that they all deal with pirate ships and adventures on the high seas. So, not an exclusive genre by any means but one that does have its place in what the current trends are. It fits right in and for me, the whole adventure part of the first half of The Whitefire Crossing was what drew me in and hooked me.
There are two principal characters in the novel, with backgrounds that are very different from each other, although in the end there are some similarities between them. Dev is a smuggler, a former street-urchin who was also a thief and could manipulate magic, the kind known as Taint. Kiran on the other hand is a noble, by virtue of his status as a mage in a city run by mages, Ninavel. When a new trade season starts between Ninavel and the neighbouring Alathian city of Kost, Dev finds out from his “employer” that apart from the usual shipment of special items he needs to smuggle across the border he also has to get a young man, Kiran, into Kost. Dev can’t resist the pay on offer since he has recently fallen on hard times and needs a lot of money to keep a promise to an old (dead) friend. What he doesn’t know however is that Kiran is a mage and the Alathians don’t take kindly to rogue mages, especially those who smuggle themselves into their cities. This sets the stage for a really delightful story of how two young men from vastly different backgrounds come together under the harshest of circumstances and become comrades, if not friends.
I really liked how the author portrayed these two individuals. There is a lot of attention to detail that has gone into them to make them realistic, to make them characters that the reader can identify with and who they’d like to be. Dev is competent smuggler and a mountain-climber who knows his way around mountains and city guards and less-than-reputable people. Kiran is an uncertain, frightened man who wants to escape his past and a dreadful future of servitude. For me, what separates the greatest compelling characters from the average compelling characters is not when the author portrays them as strong and confident, but also plays up their fears and exposes their darkest secrets. I don’t want to see just the strongest traits of a character, but also their deepest flaws. I want to see them fight against their own nature and win through, based on the good qualities that define them.
That holds true for Dev and Kiran. Let’s be honest, everybody loves bad boys, and the recent trend in the last years where a high majority of fantasy characters are all from the disreputable part of society, such as thieves and assassins most commonly, bears that out in full. Dev definitely straddles the line between good and bad because he can be as callous at times as he can be generous. He will sacrifice everything that makes him who he is, throw away all his relationships if it means that he gets to keep a promise to that one person who made him what he is today. His half of the novel is certainly a very tragic tale because he has to fight against that part of himself if he ultimately wants to do the right thing, something that has to do with Kiran and his future in Alathia. On the flipside, Kiran struggles against the very nature of what he is, a powerful mage with even more potential, and he is ready to give it all up if it means that he can be free and does not have to serve those who are yet more powerful than him and whose morals aren’t just ambiguous, but all in the negative. Off the top of my head, I can’t recall a mage-character I’ve read about who didn’t want to be one. He also has to fight against his upbringing as one of the privileged cast of Ninavel, those who think that all the common folk of the city are next to nothing when compared to them. In Dev, Kiran sees a challenge and an unrealised (at first) opportunity where he can change his view of the world. In Kiran, Dev sees a challenge where he learns that not all mages are uncaring evil bastards. This all extends to the larger world view of both of them, where they get to see past the surface details of Alathian society.
All through her characterisation, the author unveils her setting, whether it is the system of magic or the various locations or the different societies and cultures. The world in The Whitefire Crossing is incredibly rich. In Ninavel, Courtney has crafted a sort of alternate Los Angeles, a melting pot of societies and cultures where the world comes together. The names Dev, Jylla, Ruslan, Kiran, Lizavetta, Bren and others signify this. For example, Dev and Kiran are (somewhat) popular Indian names, the latter also being a unisex name that is often used. Yet, Courtney had in mind the Irish name Ciaran when she named Kiran. And continuing with that, Kiran’s mage-family members all have Russian-sounding names (Ruslan and Lizavetta). And then you have the more Anglo-names like Bren and Cara. The names give Ninavel a particular charm, a feel that makes it unique and highlights the city’s nature. In contrast Alathian names are formal and have their own rich histories, all of which conveys the sense that Alathia is a very civilised country of law and order, rather than the chaos that is Ninavel. For more on how Courtney uses names in her novel to create a setting, I have a guest post from her coming up on my blog soon in which she talks in detail about this (my blog).
The magic in this novel is not the rigid, structuralised thing it is in novels such as those by Brandon Sanderson. There are no fixed rules of application and effect. The magic is wild, is everywhere. There are different kinds of magic, all with their own varying levels of power and usage. The Taint magic that Dev used as a child is very different to the blood-magic that Kiran uses. There are trinkets and such aplenty that can amplify these magics or have power of their own. It all conveys a very easy-going approach to how the magic functions and is used by the different characters, even between two blood-mages.
Lastly, the pacing. Like I said earlier, the first half of the novel is all bout the mountain crossing as Dev hires himself off as an outrider to a trading caravan and brings Kiran along as his apprentice. I liked how Courtney built the mood and atmosphere to give that sense of adventure to this part of the narrative. It helped in my immersion to the story and it was almost as if I was right there with Kiran and Dev, sharing their experience as they trudge through the mountains while all sorts of weird things happen around them. In the second half, we get to see Kost and Alathia itself. My concern when moving through the first half was that I wasn’t sure where the author would take the narrative. The mountain crossing element didn’t come across as a plot thread that could sustain itself all through the novel, so when we finally arrived in Kost, I was quite relieved. It helped in ratcheting up the tension and the way that the author handles the transition was very well done since it wasn’t over in a flash. Courtney takes her time in bringing Dev and Kiran to the final leg of their journey and have them arrive in Kost. The scenes in the city itself, where we find that Kiran’s self-exile from Ninavel is all part of a greater conspiracy were fantastic. The author doesn’t hammer you with details and plot-points but reveals things one at a time so as not to overwhelm you. So for me, the pacing was pretty much perfect.
In closing, The Whitefire Crossing is definitely one of the best novels I’ve read this year. When compared to the 2011 releases I’ve read this year (and the few I did last year), the novel proves that there is a great amount of diversity in what is turning into a broader representation of mainstream fantasy. Something as simple as a trek through snow-capped mountains with dangerous trails and magical barriers can be just as fulfilling an experience (reading-wise) as what we saw in Sword of Shannara, Fellowship of the Ring, or Dragons of Autumn Twilight.
So yeah, this is a novel that I would most definitely recommend quite highly. Courtney Schafer has established a place for herself within the genre and I can’t wait to get to the sequel, The Tainted City.