Book Review: The Labyrinth of Flame by Courtney Schafer

labyrinth of flameFormat:  oversized paperback, first printed edition, 2015

Pages:  517

Reading Time:  about 13 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  Dev and Kiran must overcome the desert, fanatics, and politics to remain hidden from Rustlin, and yet find out that they are the only ones who have a chance at stopping a far greater threat – one that can end the world as they know it.

 

Courtney Schafer suffered a bit of bad luck when Night Shade Books, the publisher of her first two novels, nearly went bankrupt and was bought out, leaving the status of her third book in the Shattered Sigil trilogy, The Labyrinth of Flame, in limbo. Fortunately Schafer launched a successful Kickstarter campaign and was able to self-publish the book herself, including keeping the same artist and cover designer as the previous two books, as well as new content featuring a map and interior illustrations. The Labyrinth of Flame was released in 2015; by the time I went looking for a print version in 2017, Seattle Books only had a few copies left. Currently, the e-reader version is readily available, but the print version is long gone and cannot be found, even on eBay.

In the previous two books, the endings were bittersweet…with the main characters in trouble but holding on to a ray of hope. So how would Schafer choose to end not only the third book, but the series as a whole? Read on to find out and beware of spoilers. First, however, some guest reviews from cyberspace:

 

Adrian at Bibliotropic says: “…I had amazingly high hopes for The Labyrinth of Flame. And despite how high my hopes were, Schafer still managed to surpass them…It’s a layered plot of chaos and desperation, and pretty much as of about 1/3 of the way through, the pace doesn’t let up for a second. “One more chapter” syndrome hits hard. There are new reveals and new dangers around every turn, the plot gets even more full of twists and complications, and yet it never once feels like things are over the top, or like the author is trying to one-up anything previously done. The story all flows naturally, it all makes sense, and it isn’t filled with big impressive events just for the sake of big impressive events. It’s beautifully done, and I enjoyed just how much I was on the edge of my seat for most of the reading…I love the way the book challenges cultural norms all over the place, but particularly I like how it does this with romance and relationships. A presentation of people who don’t typically follow a pattern of only choosing one partner at a time but instead are rather polyamourous (and more fluid in their associated sexuality, at least sometimes, and depending on the person) is wonderful to see in fiction, not because I believe that’s the only proper way to have a healthy relationship, but because it breaks molds and shows that there are more ways to have a healthy relationship than just monogamy. I love to see this stuff explored, and I love that Schafer explored it with respect and compassion…Which brings me to the book’s ending, and I have to say this: the ending of The Labyrinth of Flame is quite possibly the most satisfying ending to a series I’ve ever read. It ties up everything wonderfully, leaves room for the future, and left me with flailing around like an idiot over what happens to the people I ship. Seriously, I don’t think there’s any possible better way for this book and this series to have ended.”

Nathan Barnhart of The Speculative Dragon states: “This series has always been a buddy adventure taken to an extreme level. It is the story of Dev and Kiran, best friends after two books who will do anything for each other, and their relationship is the thread that holds everything together. Not to get too touchy feely but damn it one has to be touched by the level of devotion their relationship has grown to. The Labyrinth of Flame succeeds because it never forgets its main story revolves around this. Passages in which the two have to go their own way are almost painful; it never seems right and even if bad things are about to happen it always feels worse when they are apart. Secondary relationships are also important; Dev has a strong and capable love interest in Cara that deserves her own series. Watching a whole group of people willing to sacrifice themselves for others; all tied to the path Dev and Kiran are on, is enough bring hope to even the bleakest setting…This concluding volume is a fast ride with dueling factions trying to gain a weapon of unknown power, a city in rebellion, and terrible acts of magic that leave destruction both on the physical plane and in the mind. Also expect torture, betrayal, and bad people occasionally winning the battle…One of the best signs that a book is doing a whole lot right is when even things that usually bother are done well. In this case there is a magic ‘system’ in place that gets explained in more detail that I usually can put up with…In The Laberynth of Flame it finally got a bit too much page time for my liking as Kiran was running on a very limited pool for much of the book and thus it was ever present. But it did give everything a sense of urgency that is hard to pull off; soon I was wondering with each act if Kiran had what it took to keep going. Courtney Schafer created a wonderful world in this series then teased us by only really letting us see a few cities and very little of the land. But the overall story is truly epic in scale; the small band of protagonists are fighting not just to save themselves but for the world.”

Paul Weimer at SF Signal surmises: “The Shattered Sigil features a world of gorgeously described and richly invoked mountain vistas, dangerous deserts and intriguing cities. The Labyrinth of Flame takes this worldbuilding and provides us with new areas in her diverse world to explore, lands strong reminiscent of the Utah and Arizona desert canyons. The travels of Dev and Kiran as they make their way across areas south of their usual haunts are excellently described…From the beginning, I’ve enjoyed the diversity of the magic and the polities featured in this seires. From Ninavel, a city supported by water magic in a harsh desert, to blood mages, charms, magical barriers, and at times, the narrative is bursting at the seems with imagery. This final volume adds yet new elements and ideas, sometimes at a breakneck pace that, despite the epic fantasy length, feels almost too breezily done. I’d like to learn more about some of the things she introduces in this latest volume. Character has always been at the heart of the trilogy, however. The author maintains the split 3rd person/1st person perspective shift between Dev and Kiran, giving readers a slightly asymmetrical and yet complete perspective on her two protagonists. I expected major changes and growth in Kiran, as it has been throughout the series, and the novel delivers on that quite well. Dev gets some interesting character development as well, especially in an unexpected call back to his still-longed for youthful days as a Tainted. The Dev that emerges through this novel is a stronger, more rounded individual.”

 

My Thoughts:

I continue to be impressed by Schafer’s writing. The imaginative landscape and setting, the detailed rules behind the magic system, the great characterization, the constant feeling of desperation, careening from one plot point to the next without being able to take a breath…Schafer balances this very nimbly. It’s clear she put a lot of thought into how to wrap up this third installment.

The characters grow and change somewhat…most of that comes from Kiran. Dev’s character seemed a bit off in this story…it’s hard to put my finger on exactly what’s different. Perhaps it is more anger and swearing than there was in the first two books. It’s not really a concern and doesn’t impact the story too much, but I did notice it. Some new characters like Yashad are introduced from the city of Khalat, as well as some desert dwellers like Teo, Zadikah, Gavila. All these supporting characters are well-devloped, with believable motivations. Unfortunately Dev and Kiran bring trouble with them wherever they go, and often have to deal with the frustration of how their attempt to survive, and even save the world, impacts those around them in a negative way. We also get more backstory into how Rustlin and Lizaveta discovered Kiran. In addition, it was great to see Melly become a prominent character, since keeping her safe was such an important plot point in the first two books.

Although the narrative switching has bothered some readers over the series, I continued to enjoy the first person Dev and third person Kiran narrative. The different perspectives are a really unique way to tell the story. Having Dev as the first person narrator works largely because he doesn’t understand the intricacies of magic, and he is largely reactive to what is going on around him. In contrast, approaching Kiran’s narration from a third person perspective allows the reader to delve more into the explanations and rules of the magic system. It works extremely well. The ending also factors into the narration – it makes sense as to why Dev would be narrating in first person – and I don’t want to spoil the ending so I’ll leave it at that.

The pacing and plot are superb. As Adrian expressed, the pace doesn’t let up and it is very hard to put the book down. Fortunately it is very easy to find a stopping point, which allowed me to read in quick spurts when my available reading time was brief. There were twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, and I had no idea how Dev and Kiran would be able to pull off what they were attempting. The stakes get higher with each passing chapter, and the intensity did not let up.

The desert setting continues to deliver unexpected delights and a uniqueness not found in other books. The mountain climbing aspect was a big draw of the first book, but was largely absent from the second. Here it is re-introduced, in a balanced sort of way that neither has too much nor too little. The plateaus, caves, box canyons, ridges, clefts, deserts, and other features make for a wonderful setting.

Another point that Adrian makes is that the ending to the book, and the series as a whole, is probably the best he has ever read. I’m hard pressed to say that I agree, but only because I’ve read so much material. There is some tragedy, but Schafer handles it deftly and manages to bring a large amount of satisfaction in the ending of both the book and the series without letting the tragedy dominate. I would agree that the ending is very, very good. Thank goodness Schafer wen’t the Kickstarter route to give the series the ending it deserves.

In conclusion I’d have to say that The Labyrinth of Flame is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I feel fortunate to have been able to add it to my library. In looking back over the series as a whole, Schafer did an amazing job, and though it’s sad that this is the final volume (except from some related short stories), the ending ties things up neatly to leave me satisfied with how things turned out. I only wish I had discovered this series sooner.

Book Review: The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer

whitefire crossingFormat:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2011

Pages:  375

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?