The Tainted City by Courtney Schafer – Book Review [Shadowhawk]

The Tainted City

Shadowhawk reviews the second novel in the Shattered Sigil adventure fantasy trilogy.

“A brilliant sequel to what was a brilliant debut.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields

When I read The Whitefire Crossing last year, the first book in the Shattered Sigil trilogy, I had thought that adventure fantasy was a somewhat new thing. But its not, exactly. A lot of novels that can be called heroic fantasy fall well within the umbrella of the term “adventure fantasy”. Barely a year into reviewing novels and comics, it was a new term for me however, and so when I reviewed The Whitefire Crossing, I was approaching the term from that context. You can read the review here.

Regardless of that term and its definition and reach, the novel itself proved to be very good. It had some great characters, some really good exploration of magic, and a fun story that I enjoyed thoroughly. Sadly, it took me more than a year to get around to reading the sequel, The Tainted City, and so I deprived myself of these same characters and this setting for that long. Quite glad that I finally got around to it. Gladder still that I enjoyed the sequel as much as I did the debut.

After everything that happened in the first novel, things are rather dire for both Kiran and Dev and they are about to get diverse. Courtney leads in with a really stark and grim depiction of their current status in Alathia, and it shows how bad things really are for them. Both are distrusted by their… hosts, but there is little they can do about it since their hands are essentially tied and there is no way out unless either of them takes a drastic measure. But salvation, of sorts is at hands. The price being that they have to return to Ninavel and help the Alathian mages discover just what is going on in the city with all the magic happen-stance since whatever happens in Ninavel, especially the events of such magnitude as are occurring at the time, has huge ramifications for Alathia as well. Of course, there are plenty of reasons why neither Kiran nor Dev wish to return to the city but they have no choice. So starts off another chapter in the lives of these two characters as they must overcome some serious adversity once again.

What I liked most about these characters was how consistent they are throughout and how well they match up with their depiction in The Whitefire Crossing. This is a rather key point as sometimes from book to book an author loses track of how some characters, especially the protagonists, are portrayed and things get confusing. Courtney however stays on the right path and she writes both Kiran and Dev just as I remember from last year. Obviously, the two of them changed in all the time that they’ve spent in Alathia of late, so they aren’t exactly the same characters as I read in the debut, but that’s just fine. There is ample room for character growth and Courtney does not miss a single beat in that regard. Whether the first page or the last page or any other page in between, these characters continue to develop and grow as they undergo one trial after another. Really fun to see that entire process.

We also get to see a lot more of the secondary characters this time around, such as Mikhail, Lizveta, Ruslan, Cara and the others. In the previous novel, scenes involving these characters were limited since the main portion of the story took place while the protagonists were trekking through the Whitefire mountains as part of a caravan. This time however, the location is static: the city of Ninavel. So you could say that the story is very grounded in that respect. And this approach allows the author to explore a completely different part of the world that she created in her debut. Before it was the the sheer charisma of a mountain trek, this time it is the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” that we are concerned with. We finally learn more about Dev’s background, especially his relationship with a fellow thief that ended in disaster for him and caused him to take on the job to smuggle Kiran into Alathia in The Whitefire Crossing.

Each character, like before, is able to stand apart from the others. Each character brings something different to the novel: a piece of the greater puzzle, a mystery, motivations, action, and so on. Distinct characters with distinct attitudes and personalities. And there really is a lot of diversity here in that regard. I loved every bit of it. Even Dev’s traitorous ex-flame. Or Ruslan for that matter, and he is as cold and calculating and ruthless as they come, that’s for sure. An unrepentant *evil* character you just love to hate.

And I have to say that the city of Ninavel is a city that lives and breathes. We see a lot of streetsider action here. We meet other mages, other thieves, other… tinkerers, all within the framework of the troubles that are rocking the city and the murder of various mages and criminals and their like. Dev gets to act as a detective of sorts this time and it was really fun to see him “re-explore” Ninavel so we get to see the city through his eyes. With Kiran, it was all mostly about the magic side of things and we get to see significant details of his relationship with Mikhail, Lizveta and Ruslan, the biggest and baddest blood mage anywhere in the world. Experiencing the city through these characters made for a great change of pace from the debut and it was also fun, just as expected.

After reading the debut, I had a lot of high expectations from the sequel and Courtney Schafer certainly delivered on each and everyone of them, which was fantastic. In particular, I really liked how we explored the concept of blood magic this time around. Before, it was something that could be used and harnessed by… concentrating the mind. There were rules and a system in place before as well, but we didn’t get to see the details that we do here, which is what helped the novel stand out. The way magic, especially blood magic, works in Courtney’s world is that it is meant to be very precise, very directed, and very controlled. The way that it is explained throughout allows me to draw parallels with designing an electrical circuit (God, how I hated doing those in high school for my physics classes!). Given Courtney’s engineering background, this isn’t exactly a surprise, but its nice to see that level of detail and thought go into building up the magic system in these novels.

Overall, what matters is that The Tainted City was as much a bundle of fun as its predecessor. It has some great characters and a really good premise. Courtney excels at writing a really complex story with lots of layers of mysteries and she reveals things one at a time, never burdening the reader with too much. Each twist and each reveal has its place in the grand scheme of things. That, more than anything, helps differentiate the novel from others of its ilk. While its not as straight-up adventure as its predecessor, it takes that element and delivers a somewhat different take on it. The adventure comes from the city exploits of both Kiran and Dev. Given the conditions that they return to in Ninavel, and the hard choices that are made very early on, it was really great to see these two interact with each other.

I would definitely recommend this novel. Definitely a contender for best novel of the year. There some slight pacing issues here and there, but nothing too much thankfully. And that’s really all the criticism that I can level at the novel.

Rating: 9.5/10

Shadowhawk is a regular contributor to TFF. A resident of Dubai, Shadowhawk reads, reads and reads. His opinions are always clear and concise. His articles always worth reading.