Jeff Salyards's Reviews > The Whitefire Crossing

The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer
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Apr 07, 12

Read in May, 2012

There are two things I really look for in any fiction: compelling characters that feel fleshed out, full of contradictory impulses, doubts, jealousies, and all the other human foible stuff; and a clever or unique take or treatment, an angle that separates it from everything else out there. The second is especially important in fantasy novels, which has a history almost as long as storytelling itself if you go back to Odysseus and Gilglamesh, so sometimes falls into the unpleasant habit of recycling tropes without bringing anything new to the table.

And I’m here to say, The Whitefire Crossing, the debut effort by Courtney Schafer, has both of those elements in spades. On its surface, it doesn’t appear all crazy unusual. It has a scoundrel with a complicated history named Dev, who’s a smuggler, but in the Locke Lamora mold as far as criminals go—he’s clever, likable, and not completely amoral or bloodthirsty. His sections of the book are told in first person.

And then there’s Kiran, a young secretive mage’s apprentice who’s on the run for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. He needs to get out of the city of Ninavel and into the country of Alathia undetected. There are plenty of obstacles (most won’t touch for fear of spoilage) but none greater than the inconvenient mountain range in between. In an interesting and bold choice (perhaps to help maintain the mystery for the bulk of the novel), Kiran’s sections are presented in third person limited.

This violates a cardinal precept most creative writing instructors proclaim from on high: don’t mix and match your POVS—pick one, and stick with it. So the story goes, mixing them confuses, frustrates, and potentially alienates readers. And while that’s not the worst advice, Schafer pulls it off here. It does take a chapter or two to adjust to the shifts between the characters/alternating POVs, and while this helps maintain some of the secrets both from Dev and the reader, it seems a natural rather than contrived choice once you get used to it.

So, structurally you have something that sets the novel apart (and in a good way, since it works!). But once of the other things that immediately sets this novel apart is the smuggling itself—it requires traveling through the mountains, and while Dev is skilled at transporting gems and small charms over the mountains, getting an inexperienced person through the mountains is a different proposition.

The characters themselves are well-drawn, their exchanges believable, and they’re both pretty well layered, as they each harbor their own secrets. But while there are plenty of other good things going on in the novel, the mountain crossing itself is where it truly shines. Most authors, gloss over travel of this kind (ocean in pre-modern times, mountains anytime, desert pretty much any time, hellish swamps, etc.), and because most readers aren’t experts on the topic, we grant authors a lot of latitude and suspend our disbelief, unless the writer clearly makes some horrible gaffes.

But when an author DOES know the terrain and territory, and is really familiar with all the challenges and dangers involved, it can turn a rote journey into a gripping one filled with tension and terrific realism. And boy, does Schafer know mountaineering. While the sections of the book that take place in urban environments are certainly handled well enough, the mountain crossing is absolutely fantastic in its rendering,

At the end of the day, the main characters are front and center, and they carry the novel, but the pure verisimilitude achieved in the mountaineering section really elevates this novel (pardon the pun) to another level.

I look forward to reading the next in the series. Although I’ll be sad if the mountains don’t feature prominently. Unless Schafer is also an expert in spelunking. Which is entirely possible.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Blake Charlton you had me at "in the Locke Lamora mold." buying it now.


Jeff Salyards It's a really fun read. I think you'll thank me. ;)


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