Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Nerve-Wracking Journey Across the Mountains

The Whitefire Crossing
Courtney Schafer
Nightshade Books
Trade pbk, $14.99, ebook $5.99, 300 p.

In the acknowledgements to this first novel, the author states that the first draft of the book was written during NaNoWriMo 2007.  That's encouraging because I'm participating in NaNoWriMo this year, and I can only hope to write something half this good.

This is a dark, at times disturbing, adventure story with villains who are deliciously evil, yet have believable motivations.  The heroes are young, flawed, make mistakes, grow, and learn about themselves and the world.

The suspense is intense at times, and the passage across the mountains, especially after the blood mage attacks, is downright nerve wracking.

The story opens in the country (city state?, kingdom?, the political structure isn't clear) of Ninavel, a haven for mages.  There is no restriction on the type of magic a mage can practice in Ninavel.  All are allowed, including blood mages, whose magic requires human sacrifice.  The neighboring kingdom is Alathia, where just the opposite situation exists.  Magic is strictly proscribed, and only government sanctioned (and controlled) mages are allowed to practice, and then only in the service of the country.  Most forms of magic are illegal and practitioners strictly punished.  This is especially true of blood mages.  Neither is a place I would particularly want to live, for totally different reasons.

The story opens when Dev, a young smuggler, is told by the man who gives him his commissions that on his next trip into Alathia he'll be smuggling in a young man named Kerin, who is trying to escape from some of the local banking houses due to certain poor financial decisions.  Dev is suspicious but needs the money.  He promised his dying mentor he would buy the man's daughter from the crime lord who owns her before she changes.  It seems a common trait among children in Ninavel is the Taint, which is basically telekinesis.  Slavery is commonplace, and there are a number of crime rings which use children as thieves.  The Taint goes away at puberty, and the children are sold to whoever wants them, no questions asked.  Dev was a slave to the same crime lord until he changed.  When this girl changes, she'll be sold to a brothel with a really nasty reputation.  Dev is doing everything possible to raise money so he can to buy her first.  And so he takes a job against his better judgment.

Dev is right to be wary.  Kiran isn't running from a banking house.  He's running from a blood mage, one he happens to be indentured to.  Kiran has no stomach for the torture and murder that are a part of being a blood mage.  Did I mention most mages in Ninavel regard those without magical ability to be little more than animals?  This is especially true of blood mages, who tend to be possessive, vindictive, and ruthless.

Kiran and Dev travel with the first caravan over the mountains.  Dev is a regular guide on these treks, and Kiran is posing as his apprentice.  It doesn't take long before trouble follows after them.  They don't trust each other, but soon they have to flee the caravan and depend on each other for survival.  Dev is one of the most experienced guides around, but he can't fight magic.  Even if they make it across the mountains and pass the border crossing, their troubles will be far from over.  Just being in Alathia is enough to earn Kiran a death sentence.

Courtney Schafer is a rock climber, a passionate one.  It shows in her writing.  She brings the passage across the mountains alive.  The suspense, not just from the pursuit of the villains, but from trying to survive against the elements, gets intense.  Maybe I'd had too much coffee and not enough food, but I found that whole segment of the book to be one of the most nerve wracking things I'd read in quite a while.

This book has some serious themes running through it.  Betrayal, conflicting commitments, situations in which there are no choices that won't leave innocent people dead.  Both Dev and Kiran have to learn about trust.  Both have to decide what kind of man they want to be and then pay the (excruciatingly high) price to be that type of man.  In many ways, this novel is a coming of age story, albeit a grim and bloody one.

I recommend it highly and am eagerly waiting for the sequel.


  1. Night Shade and PYR are amazing with the stuff they are putting out - especially debut novels.

  2. You're absolutely right about that. Angry Robot is another I'd include in that list, and will when I get around to writing a post about why I'm no longer reading much from the major publishing imprints. I've got more PYR, Nightshade, and Angry robot in the queue to review when NaNoWriMo is over.

  3. Yeah, them, too. I am really looking forward to 'Empire State.'

  4. I'm planning on reviewing that one. I got accepted into their Robot Army back in the summer, and one of the advantages is members get to download eARCs for review purposes. That's one of the eARCs up right now. I'm going to download it over the weekend along with Giant Thief. Once the review goes up, you get a copy of an in-print book of your choice. I'll try to post the reviews in December.

  5. Just learned from Twitter that AngryRobot had an open slush pile in March, and hope to do the same next Spring.

    Might want to see what you can do with the NanNoWriMo effort when you finish it.

  6. Thanks. I just got the email from them and posted the press release here and at Futures Past and Present. I've hit some speed bumps with the NaNoWriMo project but started getting back on track last night. I was thinking of indie publishing it once I got it in shape, but I might give them a try.