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Monday, July 25, 2011

“The Whitefire Crossing” by Courtney Schafer (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Order “The Whitefire CrossingHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE (PDF)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Courtney Schafer attended college at Caltech where she obtained a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and also learned how to rock climb, backpack, ski and scuba dive. She then earned her Masters at the University of Colorado. Courtney now works in the aerospace industry and is married to an Australian scientist who shares her love for speculative fiction and mountain climbing. The Whitefire Crossing is her first novel.

PLOT SUMMARY: Dev is a smuggler with the perfect cover. He's in high demand as a guide for the caravans that carry legitimate goods from the city of Ninavel into the country of Alathia. The route through the Whitefire Mountains is treacherous, and Dev is one of the few climbers who knows how to cross them safely. With his skill and connections, it's easy enough to slip contraband charms from Ninavel—where any magic is fair game, no matter how dark—into Alathia, where most magic is outlawed.

But smuggling a few charms is one thing; smuggling a person through the warded Alathian border is near suicidal. Having made a promise to a dying friend, Dev is forced to take on a singularly dangerous cargo: Kiran. A young apprentice on the run from one of the most powerful mages in Ninavel, Kiran is desperate enough to pay a fortune to sneak into a country where discovery means certain execution—and he'll do whatever it takes to prevent Dev from finding out the terrible truth behind his getaway.

Yet the young mage is not the only one harboring a deadly secret. Caught up in a web of subterfuge and dark magic, Dev and Kiran must find a way to trust each other—or face not only their own destruction, but that of the entire city of Ninavel...

FORMAT/INFO: The Whitefire Crossing is 353 pages long divided over twenty-four numbered chapters. Narration alternates between Dev’s first-person POV and Kiran’s third-person POV. The Whitefire Crossing ends at a satisfying stopping point, but is clearly the first book in a series as numerous threads are left unresolved. The Tainted City, volume two of The Shattered Sigil, is scheduled for publication in 2012. August 2011 marks the Trade Paperback publication of The Whitefire Crossing via Night Shade Books. Cover art is provided by David Palumbo.

ANALYSIS: The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer is the tenth fantasy debut I’ve read in 2011. Four of these debuts are published by Night Shade Books including Teresa Frohock’s Miserere: An Autumn Tale, Of Blood & Honey by Stina Leicht, and Bradley P. Beaulieu’s The Winds of Khalakovo. Of these four, Of Blood & Honey and The Winds of Khalakovo are immediate standouts, while Miserere: An Autumn Tale showcased tremendous potential. The Whitefire Crossing however, is the best of them. In fact, when all is said and done, The Whitefire Crossing could be the fantasy debut of 2011.

So what’s so special about The Whitefire Crossing? In a word . . . everything. Characterization. World-building. Prose. Plot. Storytelling... The Whitefire Crossing succeeds in all of these areas, and does so with flying colors.

Take for example, Courtney Schafer’s characterization which is highlighted by Dev and Kiran, charming three-dimensional protagonists blessed with believable personalities, strengths and weaknesses. What makes Dev and Kiran so interesting is that neither one of them are prototypical ‘heroes’. Dev is a former Taint thief and current smuggler who takes on the job involving Kiran because he needs the money, while Kiran is secretly running away from his life as a blood mage apprentice. Both harbor convincing motivations for their actions—some are even honorable—and are willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals, including sacrificing the lives of innocent people. At the same time, Dev and Kiran are also willing to sacrifice their own lives, not for fame or glory, but because they feel it’s the right thing to do. The supporting cast meanwhile, is quite strong and features Cara, an outrider and Dev’s friend; Pello, a dangerous shadow man—spy—whose allegiance remains in question throughout the book; and a couple of very powerful and very deadly villains in Ruslan Khaveirin and Simon Levanian.

Writing-wise, The Whitefire Crossing is very well-written. Courtney Schafer’s prose is polished and confident, and her writing style is highly accessible. Most impressive was the author’s ability to write compelling narratives in both first-person and third-person point-of-views:

For several years now, I'd run packages across the mountains and over the Alathian border to the city of Kost for him. The Alathians were strict as hell on magic, piling on all kinds of laws and regulations to try and stop people from using it except in the tame little ways approved by their Council. Human nature being what it is, that makes for a thriving trade in certain specialty items. And since they'd outlawed all the darker, more powerful kinds of magic, it wasn't too hard to get around the poor bastard of an Alathian mage stuck with border inspection duty. Easy money as far as I was concerned, but smuggling a few illegal charms and wards was one thing. Smuggling a person was a whole different story.” —Dev

Ever since he’d taken the hennanwort, Kiran felt trapped in a nightmare. A terrible smothering numbness engulfed his mind, his inner senses vanished as completely as a severed limb. Wavering colored haloes shimmered in disorienting array over his sight, and the distances between objects grew and shrank with no discernible pattern, as in some bizarre dreamscape. Every time he reached for power, he felt nothing but a sickening void, and his thoughts scattered and skipped like striderbugs in magelight.” —Kiran

World-building is not very detailed, providing only the barest amount of information necessary to understand concepts introduced in the book—the founding of Ninavel, Alathia’s restrictions against magic, Tainted children—but it is extensive. So not only has Courtney Schafer created a secondary world populated with different races, cultures and geography, but the world also has its own gods (Khalmet, Suliyya, Noshet), currency, slang (highsiders, streetsiders), food/drinks, illegal substances (taphtha, lionclaw), and flora/fauna (bristlebark pines, knotweed, fiddlenecks, sandcats, banehawks, snaprats), all of which is seamlessly integrated into the similes/metaphors used by the novel’s characters: “the mage’s face stayed as serenely calm as a Varkevian idol’s.” Certain concepts may take a while before they are properly explained, but that’s by design. Dev and Kiran come from two very different worlds, neither with much knowledge about the other, so the reader will learn things about blood magic, channelers/focus, ikilhia, Tainted children, the Change, the Well of the World and so on whenever information is shared between the two protagonists.

Magic includes different kinds of mages (blood, bone, sand, wind, earth, metal, crystal, song) and charms/wards used for just about everything imaginable including healing (bonemender, pains-ease, skinseal), sending messages, starting fires, dispelling vermin, adding a sniper feature to crossbows, tracking a person, discerning the truth, etc. Not very groundbreaking as far as magic systems go, but it’s interesting, well-developed, and is the primary source for pretty much all of the conflicts & challenges that Dev and Kiran have to face in the novel.

Rock climbing is an important element in The Whitefire Crossing. It helps define Dev as a character, brings a unique ingredient to the table that I’ve never read in a fantasy novel before, and establishes a sense of authenticity—obviously a result of the author’s own experiences—that is translated to the rest of the novel. Thematically, it’s quite interesting to see the vivid contrast between Ninavel and the cities of Alathia with all of their restrictions, while the author also explores issues of trust, sacrifice and different kinds of prejudice (highsiders/streetsiders, mages/nathahlen).

Storytelling in The Whitefire Crossing is superb. Right from the start, I was hooked by the book’s plot and remained fully engaged throughout thanks to excellent pacing and a story that is easy to follow, yet full of unexpected surprises and nonstop thrills. Basically, every time a question was answered, a problem solved or a crisis averted, new problems and revelations would arise, propelling Dev & Kiran into ever greater danger and adventure. Yet for all of the excitement offered by The Whitefire Crossing, it was the personal nature of the story that I admired most. Most epic fantasy these days features some sort of grand struggle between good and evil that threatens the entire land. The Whitefire Crossing is different. The stakes in Courtney Schafer’s novel are much more personal. Intimate. Dev repaying a debt to an old friend. Kiran running away because of what was stolen from him. The relationship that develops between the two. Even though a subplot emerges that threatens the city of Ninavel, The Whitefire Crossing remains personal, driven by Dev and Kiran’s thoughts, feelings and morals. Personally, I loved it. The story felt different from a lot of epic fantasy that I’ve read. Refreshing. The ending is a bit slow and anticlimactic, but it sets up a number of interesting developments for the sequel.

Negatively, there’s very little to complain about in The Whitefire Crossing. Dev’s narrative voice seemed familiar to me, bringing to mind numerous first-person POVs that I’ve read recently in urban fantasy and books featuring thieves, while the novel’s magic system, themes and world-building could have been fleshed out in greater detail. However, these issues are rather insignificant since they hardly impacted my enjoyment of the novel.

CONCLUSION: It’s not very often that I get to say this, but Courtney Schafer’s The Whitefire Crossing is the complete package. Fully developed characters. Across the board world-building. Intriguing magic. Accomplished writing. Engaging storytelling. Thrilling adventure... Add it all up and there's no doubt in my mind that The Whitefire Crossing is not only one of the best fantasy debuts of 2011, but it’s also one of the year’s best fantasy novels period...

5 comments:

Jamie (Mithril Wisdom) said...

Sold, sold, sold. This one's going on the TBR list. Thanks for the review :D

Bibliotropic said...

I managed to get a copy of this via NetGalley, and I've been debating whether to read it next or perhaps another book. I think this review just bumped "Whitefire Crossing" to the top of the list; now I'm doubly excited to read it!

Robert said...

You're welcome Jamie!

I hope you like the book Bibliotropic :)

Anyone interested in the novel, should know it's available online at Amazon :D

Courtney Schafer said...

Just a heads up for any UK people interested in The Whitefire Crossing - I know Amazon.uk claims the book will be released there Aug 16 and even has a preorder link, but that is NOT correct. My agent is still shopping the UK/Commonwealth rights. (She's been fighting for a while now to get the UK Amazon preorder link taken down, but unfortunately Amazon.uk is being frustratingly slow to comply.) You can of course order from US or Canadian Amazon, and hopefully one day Whitefire will release in the UK as well.

Anonymous said...

But Uk readers can buy it as an ebook from Baen's webscriptions.net. All Night Shade books are available there as ebooks. They available in a variety of formats inc. for Kindle, Nook, and Apple Ios readers as well as epub. Looking forward to reading it.

Melvyn in Darlington UK

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