What I’m Reading: “The Whitefire Crossing” & “The Tainted City” by Courtney Schafer
I was going to begin by saying: “A couple of weeks back”—but when I checked it was just over a month! So ok, just over a month ago I did a “Just Arrived” post for Courtney Schafer’s The Whitefire Crossing & The Tainted City (Nightshade Books, 2011 & 2012 respectively), the first two novels in The Shattered Sigil series.
As you will be aware if you read that post, Courtney and I have been corresponding recently and finding out that we have a lot in common—for example, we both love the magic and power of names in story. (To read our respective posts in Abhinav Jain’s “Names: A New Perspective” guest author series, which I reprised here, click on the following titles: Courtney—”Building Fantasy Worlds One Name At a Time”; Helen—”The Power of Names” ) We also both love Mark Helprin’s novel Winter’s Tale and Dorothy Dunnet’s historical Lymond and House of Niccolo series.
So I was fairly confident that I was going to enjoy The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City, so much so that I saved them to read on my recent holiday. I was not disappointed.
I have often said, in relation to my own books, that I love an adventurous story. I also love a story of twists and turns, with layers of plot machinations. I am also on record as loving “fantastic worlds.” Courtney’s novels deliver on all three aspects of storytelling. Added bonus for a fantasy (imho): yes, there is magic! Most notably Blood Magic in the case of these stories, although other forms do exist.
Plot synopsis-wise, and also in terms of world building, this is a story of a city, Ninavel, that is built in the centre of a mountain-ringed desert where water—and therefore the survival of the city—must be generated by magic. Ninavel is constructed above a vast magical confluence that has been used to attract mages from all over the world, and once in the city, they pretty much have free rein to do as they please. The most powerful and ruthless of these mages are the Blood Mages—but all mages enjoy largely unfettered power. Obviously this has implications for the non-magical citizens of the city, but there are compensations in terms of trade and freedom from the constraints that exist in the adjoining state of Alathia that lead citizens to risk proximity to mages.
The two central protagonists are Dev, a mountain guide and part time smuggler, and Kiran, an apprentice Blood mage on the run from his master. The Whitefire Crossing deals with Kiran’s attempt, guided by Dev, to flee Ninavel for refuge in the (relative) safety of Alathia. I really loved the adventurous nature of this book, where the mountain crossing and Dev’s love of mountain climbing form a major element in the story. I also like the gradual emergence of both main characters’ backstories, but particularly Kiran’s given it is the more nuanced and difficult of the two (imho)—I do not think it is a spoiler to say that he loves Blood magery in the same way Dev loves mountaineering, but is less comfortable with the price it exacts.
One interesting aspect of the book, craft-wise, is that as readers we encounter Dev via the first person point of view, whereas Kiran is written in the (closed) third person. As a fellow writer I “noted” this, but the differentiaton worked for me in the sense that it was “seamless” and did not jar me out of the story. So although it may surprise some readers, I believe it works in the context of these books.
The juxtaposition of the relatively anarchic world of Ninavel with the ordered and law-bound society of Alathia, while the physical challenge and freedom of the mountains provides the perilous bridge—or crossing—between the two, adds up to an exciting fantasy world. In addition to the adventurous quest-journey comprised in the eponymous Whitefire crossing, I also enjoyed the layers of intrigue that gradually unfold through the plots of both books—although if forced to categorise, I would say that The Whitefire Crossing is the more adventurous tale, The Tainted City the story where intrigue, plot and counterplot predominate.
Depending on your preferences, you will probably find yourself slightly preferring one book over the other, but both, in my opinion, are accomplished fantasies. And although both stories wrap up well for what is a continuing series, I was still agog to find out more at the end of The Tainted City—particularly about the mystery that has emerged around Kiran’s past, and also how his differences with the rest of the Blood mages will resolve. One thing I am reasonably sure of, given the story to date, is that it will not necessarily work out in a readily predictable way.
I enjoyed reading both The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City and feel they provide a fresh take on aspects of the Fantasy genre, including the quest-journey (in which I feel The Whitefire Crossing excels), the coming-of-age story for Kiran, the city-as-world (Ninavel), and the price of power, whether it is magical or political (or both, in the case of both Ninavel and Alathia.) Needless to say, I am looking forward to the third and final book in the trilogy, not just because I hope it will provide resolution, put because I feel quite sure some of the outcomes will surprise me—and I do so love being surprised.