REVIEW: The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A mountaineer guide/smuggler gets caught in the intrigue of magicians when desperation leads him to transport a sorcerer on the run into a country restrictive of magic.

MY REVIEW

PROS: Spot-on scenes set in the mountains written by someone comfortable and familiar with such a milieu; a vividly described secondary fantasy world; well done “reluctant companions” social dynamic between the two main characters.

CONS: The switch between 1st- and 3rd-person not always effective; an important plot element is left frustratingly unresolved.

BOTTOM LINE: Top-rope yourself up into Schafer’s world of mountains and magic.

Below me sprawled the broad rock strewn basin at the head of the canyon. Dawn’s light painted the surrounding peaks a vivid gold and softened the contours of the icy snowfields that spilled from their heights. To the west, between two rugged peaks lay the saddle of Broken Hand Pass, blown clear of snow by the high winds of spring. Out eastward, beyond the jagged pinnacles surrounding the deep gash of Silverlode canyon, the pale white rock of the ridges dwindled into steep gray and brown slopes and leveled out in the low sandy expanse of the Painted Valley. Ninavel was visible on the desert plain, tiny and toy-like at this distance, the firefly radiance of magelights sparkling in the valley’s shadow. The splendor of the scene and the bite of the chill morning air helped to clear the cobwebs from my head.

Gods, I was tired. Though Kiran looked far worse. I eyed him as he struggled over the wagon-sized boulder below mine, his chest heaving in great gasps. Bluish circles stained the skin beneath his eyes, and his cheekbones stood out sharp as the ridgeline above us.

After all the yelling and thrashing he’d done in his sleep last night, I thought it a miracle he had the energy to walk at all. Tonight I meant to go buy some yeleran leaf extract off Merryn, the convoy’s healer. If Kiran refused to swallow it, by Khalmet, I’d pour it down his throat. Yeleran would knock him out for sure, and gain us both some much-needed sleep.

Kiran collapsed beside me with a groan. “Now can we talk?” he panted.

Dev is a desperate man. The aftermath of a business and social relationship’s collapse has him, financially, behind the eight ball just when he needs the cash to keep a long held promise. Needing lots of money, and fast, he is cornered into taking a job that is paying far, far too much not to be a catch Dev is unaware of. A big catch.

Kiran is a desperate man. He needs to get out of the city of Ninavel any way he can, and the mage-adverse land of Alathia on the far side of the Whitefire mountains looks promising — and Dev is his best hope for making that Whitefire Crossing. Not that Dev really knows just how desperate Kiran really is, or why…

Desperate men and treacherous mountains can be a dangerous combination. The dangerous combination can turn positively lethal when they have major trust issues, with themselves and each other.

Or, to summarize it a bit more flippantly, in the classic “wunza” formula: One’s an experienced mountaineer fighting to keep a long held promise. One’s a mage on the run. They fight crime…

Such is the premise of The Whitefire Crossing, the debut novel from Courtney Schafer. With alternating 1st person (Dev) and 3rd person( Kiran) viewpoints, Schafer portrays a world where a treacherous mountain border crossing is ground zero for intrigue between magicians, with the two main characters caught in the middle.

The novel carefully unfolds its plot and backstory as these two characters meet and make their titular journey toward Alathia. With readers being in the head of Dev, the full details of just why he is so desperate for money as to take a risky commission only become clear by the later stages of the book. Too, the truth of Kiran’s nature, and why he is running is something that Dev only learns by stages throug the book. And Kiran’s departure and his crossing holds secrets and mysteries both Dev and Kiran are unaware of that are slowly unveiled as well. As the novel progresses, the two characters slowly learn about each other, and to a real extent, themselves, in a gradual, revealed fashion. By the time the novel is done, we get a complete picture that, if it had been dumped at the beginning, would have given the book much less narrative and emotional momentum and tension.

Within this onion-layer reveal of the true situation the characters are in and who they are, Schafer has plenty of time, narratively, to bring her world to life. And she definitely does. Although the author told me she had never read the anthologies, Ninavel felt, to me, to be inspired by the Robert Asprin Thieves World anthologies. Ninavel is a city founded on the edges of civilization, full of gangs and magicians, and a place where anything might happen. Although little of the actual present-time plot actually takes place in Ninavel, Schafer convincingly brings it to life through the recollections of Dev and Kiran, as their backgrounds are fleshed out.

As far as the mountains of the titular Whitefire Crossing, well, the author is a mountaineering enthusiast, and she brings the mountains of her book to vivid life. If the chestnut about authors writing “what they know” holds any water, Schafer embodies that saying. Having one mountaineering experienced character and one novice allows Schafer to avoid the “as you know, Bob” problem and introduce the reader to the fascinating world of mountain climbing. Schafer brings forth the nuts-and-bolts of climbing, and lyrical beauty she brings to describing the mountains is amazing. I’ve only visited mountains such as the ones in the book a few times, but Schafer evoked the spirit and milieu of these mountains in such a convincing way that I wished I could go photograph some mountains as I was reading the book.

Beyond the mountains, there is a lot of solid worldbuilding. The magic system is perhaps not of the baroque, intricate complexity and science of a Brandon Sanderson title, but it works more than well enough. I liked the idea of the tainted; it makes sense that some people growing up in a city running on magic might briefly manifest magical abilities. And even more sense that people would use and abuse such people’s abilities. The language beyond the splendid prose of the mountain descriptions works well, too. Schafer has enough confidence in the reader and in her world to introduce a lot of terminology and ideas into the book. She never makes the mistake, though, of (to quote Damon Knight and Vonda Mcintyre) making a rabbit into a smeerp.

Concerning structure: earlier this year, at the suggestion of Kay Kenyon, I read a book on story structure. Schafer’s novel, like clockwork, fit very well into the beats of that theory of novel construction. Quarter point midpoint, and three quarter point turns in the plot came regularly and predictably. This is not to shortchange the novel and say it was predictable; rather, the skeleton of the story was very well-formed and thought out. Regardless of whether the author is a pantser or a plotter, the end result is a solid story.

Another interesting thing I want to note about the book. In a guest post on SF Signal, the author talked about the grey space between Epic fantasy and sword and sorcery:

But what if a fantasy novel has the adventurous feel and tight character focus of S&S, but is lacking either swords or sorcery? My novel The Whitefire Crossing falls into this category: plenty of sorcery, mixed with mountain climbing, spies, intrigue, and risky schemes – but no swords.

I can report that this is true. The book falls somewhere into the space between the sword and sorcery of, say, Jon Sprunk, and the more epic fantasy of a Brandon Sanderson. It’s a relatively unexplored land in fantasy, and Schafer revels in doing so.

What didn’t work for me? I think that the 1st-person/3rd-person point of view split is not entirely successful. There were times I would dearly have loved to been in Kiran’s head, or seen Dev’s adventures from a 3rd-person point of view. I’m moderately surprised an author would attempt such complex POV changes in a first novel. The other thing I thought didn’t work as well was a Chekov’s Gun that, in the end, is not resolved within the book itself. I hesitate to say more (spoilers!) but I was more than a little disappointed that it was not resolved by story’s end. One other weakness of the book I will mention, but it’s more of a kvetch on my part: the book definitely could have used a map. While the actual ground covered is relatively small in terms of an epic novel (and it really isn’t an epic novel, as mentioned above), having a better sense of the geography of the world would have been keenly useful.

Still, the pros and strengths of this novel far, far outweigh any of the negatives. This book is in the running for favorite book of the year I’ve read. I suspect and hope that the forthcoming sequel, The Tainted City, means that we are going to get a present-tense exploration of the city we really only saw in flashback in this book. Can Schafer pull off bringing to life a full urban environment as convincingly as she does the Whitefire mountains? I want to find out.