In Shaman’s Crossing, an excellent light-fantasy novel, Robin Hobb succeeds in not only creating a compelling world but also establishing a rich, branIn Shaman’s Crossing, an excellent light-fantasy novel, Robin Hobb succeeds in not only creating a compelling world but also establishing a rich, branching worldview to anchor it.
The book revolves around Nevare Burvelle, a solider son, as all second sons of nobility are destined to be. Nevare’s father is a member of the new nobility, granted his title for valor as an officer in the king’s cavalry, and Nevare is raised to fill his heredity role as soldier.
The first third of the novel details Nevare’s plains upbringing. His father is an honorable, inflexible man, not one to question hierarchy or social mores. He rears Nevare as a cadet as much as a son, entrusting his training to an old soldier and, later, an old enemy, to prep him for his duties.
The world they inhabit seems to parallel ours before the Industrial Revolution. The kingdom of Gernia has just concluded an expansionist campaign against the indigenous Plainspeople. They are now expanding further to the sea, building a great road for hoped-for profits, and coming into nascent conflict with the Specks, human-like creatures who live free in the forests as the Plainspeople once roamed the grasslands.
Hobb makes good use of the expansionist setting, using it to parallel Western imperialism without resorting to simplistic representations of any people. To Nevare’s father, the conflict against the Plainspeople was regrettable but inevitable. Gernia needed their land, and they were stronger. The same will be true for the Specks. And while Nevare’s father respects his old enemies, his also regards them with prejudice and assimilationist condescension. Nevare forms his own impressions through a series of well-crafted encounters, which play an increasingly important role as the book progresses.
Shaman’s Crossing really comes to life when Nevare leaves his home to enter the king’s Academy. There he comes into contact—and conflict—with his peers as they all struggle under the strain of military hierarchy and hazing. In his naiveté, Nevare is surprised to find that the Academy doesn’t live up to its ideals, as the hazing and prejudice directed toward new nobles’ sons becomes degrading and dangerous.
To maintain the balance of power in the military, the old nobles and their allies at the Academy strive to expel the sons of new nobles. This conflict—and its wider ties to taxation, intrigue and power—is well-portrayed. The day-to-day indignities and failures carry proper weight, and Hobb does an excellent job of building tension without descending into melodrama.
The book has some soft spots. Nevare is simplistic in his impressions of the world around him; he has a host of rules, standards and hoary old sayings available for recitation. While this naiveté is meant to reflect his unquestioning adherence to authority, it can also feel repetitive. Still, Hobb never cheats in resolving the conflicts she creates, and Nevare’s inflexibility leads to some rewarding character development, especially when he begins to question the purpose of his code.
Similarly, while magic has a light presence, there are a few dream/fantasia sequences that gum up the works a bit. They’re essential to the plot—and they offer an excellent payoff—but the more mystical passages are generally skimworthy.
Overall, though, Shaman’s Crossing offers an excellent encapsulation of place and people. Hobb is confident in her pacing, and the book’s tragedies and setbacks—small and large—are well-earned and keep the reader turning the pages. The book is the first in a trilogy, but it’s self-contained…even if its conclusion makes you want to jump immediately to the second installment. ...more