Format: oversized paperback, first edition, 2011
Reading Time: about 6.5 hours
Over the last few years, when buying books on Amazon I would occasionally see The Whitefire Crossing pop up as a recommended read. To be honest I passed over this book multiple times due to the premise about mountain climbing, which I thought I would have no interest in. And since the book came out in 2011, I missed most of the reviews on other sites, since at the time I was primarily focused on getting my own site established. It wasn’t until I discovered that Mark Lawrence had helped back Courtney Shafer’s kickstarter to publish The Labyrinth of Flame, the final book in her trilogy, that my interest became piqued. When I discovered how hard it was to track down a physical copy of The Labyrinth of Flame, I took a chance and bought the entire trilogy. I’ll share my thoughts regarding The Whitefire Crossing below, with some spoilers, but first let’s check out out some other reviews.
Robert Thompson at Fantasy Book Critic thought “The Whitefire Crossing is very well-written. Courtney Schafer’s prose is polished and confident, and her writing style is highly accessible. Most impressive was the author’s ability to write compelling narratives in both first-person and third-person point-of-views” and “World-building is not very detailed, providing only the barest amount of information necessary to understand concepts introduced in the book—the founding of Ninavel, Alathia’s restrictions against magic, Tainted children—but it is extensive.” Robert also states that the magic system was “not very groundbreaking as far as magic systems go, but it’s interesting and well-developed” and “Storytelling in The Whitefire Crossing is superb. Right from the start, I was hooked by the book’s plot and remained fully engaged throughout thanks to excellent pacing and a story that is easy to follow, yet full of unexpected surprises and nonstop thrills.”
Paul Weimer at SF Signal listed the Pros as “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” and Cons were “The switch between 1st- and 3rd-person not always effective; an important plot element is left frustratingly unresolved.” Paul also states “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.” Finally Paul offers up this critique: “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.”
There are many other reviews of The Whitefire Crossing – some decent, others not so much. I’ll try to focus more on what isn’t covered by other reviews. The story is told from two points of view: Dev the smuggler is in first person, while Kiran the mage is in third person. Some other reviewers didn’t care for this but I really liked it and felt that it gave the story a unique narrative that made it stand out from other books. Character motivations are rational and believable, except perhaps Mikail’s, Kiran’s “brother”, whose motivations are at times inconsistent. I really liked the few supporting characters that have a place in the story, and I wish more time had been devoted to Cara, the caravan guide, or “outrider”, who is very intriguing. The cultural diversity of Ninavel is a nice touch, and I would agree with Paul Weimer’s comments that it reminds me a bit of Sanctuary, the city found in the Thieves World novels. Schafer has done an excellent job at creating a living, breathing world – it feels real.
Since many others reviews have touched on the mountain climbing aspect and how well it is done – Schafer, as an avid climber, knows her subject matter well – I’ll simply agree that this part of the story was excellent and move on, while acknowledging that it is only a factor in the first half of the book.
The magic system is well thought out, but can still be a bit confusing at times…Schafer does a good job in explaining many of the rules behind her system, but occasionally I found myself not understanding a few aspects of it, especially when it causes the death of one of the antagonists – I’m still not sure how that happened. I did like the different schools of magic, and the fact that two countries used magic in completely opposite ways.
Schafer’s prose is a delight to read, but there are moments where “real world” speech intrudes, and there are a lot of F-bombs. Pacing is excellent, except for a magic ritual that occurs within the last third of the book, where the time spent on the details of the ritual slows the pace down considerably. Even factoring in that blip, however, I found that Schafer exhibits great skill in building and maintaining tension. There were several points in the book where I expected the story to be over, but I thought, “it can’t be, there’s too many pages left”, and sure enough, the stakes get higher each time. It’s that old “out of the frying pan and into the fire” adage, which Schafer utilizes extremely well.
Spoiler alert (skip if you must): The Whitefire Crossing is not a story with a happy ending. The fate of the main characters has not been resolved, and there’s a particular antagonist lurking around that threatens to be a big problem for the protagonists. But that’s why there’s a sequel, right?
I’m looking forward to reading the final two books in the trilogy, starting with The Tainted City. Schafer has managed to build tension with great skill while incorporating the uniqueness of mountain climbing with a fantasy adventure laden with magic. Who knew mountain climbing and fantasy would work so well together?