BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A threat to the barriers surrounding Alathia bring prisoners Dev and Kiran back to the titular tainted city of Ninavel, and the dangers of being involved with the doings of powerful mages.
PROS: Schafer brings the city of Ninavel to as full flower as she did the mountains of The Whitefire Crossing
CONS: A plot device used feels a bit like a reset button. The book could sorely use some maps and a concordance.
BOTTOM LINE: Schafer continues to develop as a writer in her sophomore effort.
In her debut novel The Whitefire Crossing [My SF Signal review here] Courtney Schafer introduced us to The Whitefire Mountains, the perilous mountain border between the Painted Desert, with Ninavel, the city of Mages, and Alathia, a prosperous country with a tight rein on its magic users. The Whitefire Crossing is the story of Dev and Kiran. The latter a mountaineer and caravaners with a love of the mountains who is asked to smuggle a perilous cargo–Kiran, a mage who is fleeing his master. And both men are soon caught in events and plots much larger than they realize.
In The Tainted City, we pick up their story some months later. Both are prisoners of the Alathians, Dev in a work camp, and Kiran asked to use his magical abilities and research on behalf of Alathia’s protection. Neither is really trusted, especially Kiran, given his training in the art of blood magic. But when an opportunity comes for them to accompany an expedition back to Ninavel to find out more about a series of earthquakes and disruptions that threaten the integrity of Alathia’s protections, Dev and Kiran find themselves again caught in plots and events larger than they first realize. Plots upon which not only hang their fates, and those they care for, but the entire city of Ninavel, and beyond.
I truly enjoyed The Whitefire Crossing, and I approached sequel with that peculiar mix of anticipation and dread that I often have when returning to a new author whose first book I enjoyed. Will this second book meet my expectations and response to the first? Has the author grown and developed since their initial effort? Is the magic still there?
Happily, for me, The Tainted City lived up to my expectations and wishes for a sequel. Its strengths are many, and I would like to start with the worldbuilding and the setting. Although we get some scenes within the mountains (no surprise, given the author’s interests), the focus and the heart of the story is firmly set in the city of Ninavel. The author brings the city of Mages to life as convincingly and in as much depth and evocation of sense of place as she does the Mountains. Also, the magic system worldbuilding is well done. We get a better sense of what Blood Magic is, what it can and can’t do. We also get to see, briefly, one other form of magic. I would have liked to see what other kinds of magic there are in this world; there are intimations in both novels that there are many schools and varieties of sorcery, even if Blood Magic is amongst the most powerful and dark.
Character and the writing that evokes it is the other strength I want to mention here. Like its predecessor, the novel alternates between a first person perspective for Dev, and a third person perspective focusing on Kiran. The character voices are strong. An event early on does act as a large reset button on their relationship, perhaps too much of one. However, this has the salutary effect of helping make The Tainted City stand very much on its own rather than being a sequel dependent on the first novel. The writing carefully invokes and reveals the events of the first book in a holistic and believable manner. As a new reader, you could start here without any difficulty. Beyond that reset button, though, there are solid character arcs and growth for the main characters and the secondary characters as well, providing solid payoffs for those who key off of character development more than worldbuilding.
What could have been better about The Tainted City? Especially with the ever growing complicated landscape and geopolitical world, a map and concordance was sorely missed. This is a big and rich world, and more and more of it is impacting on the story, even if the story itself is physically set in only a slice of it. And I am still undecided about that aforementioned reset button.
Like its predecessor, The Tainted City fits on the stakes scale between sword and sorcery and wide-screen epic fantasy in a convincing way. As mentioned above, you can start here, if you really wanted to. I can’t imagine why you would want to do so, and I actively recommend you start with The Whitefire Crossing. As for me, I am absolutely up for the third book in The Shattered Sigil series.