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 Tainted City by Courtney Schafer

tainted cityFormat:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2012

Pages:  402

Reading Time:  about 10 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  Dev and Kiran return to Ninavel in an attempt to win back their freedom, but when things go downhill quickly, it becomes a fight not only for freedom but also survival.

 

A little over 8 months ago I acquired all 3 books in The Shattered Sigil series by Courtney Schafer, and read and reviewed the first book, The Whitefire Crossing. I liked the story but was slightly disappointed by the ending, though I said at the time that it was certainly set up for the sequel. Well, I have just completed that sequel, The Tainted City, and I’m ready to offer up my thoughts. First, however, some guest reviews from around the internet:

 

Paul Weimer of SF Signal states: “Happily, for me, The Tainted City lived up to my expectations and wishes for a sequel. Its strengths are many, and I would like to start with the worldbuilding and the setting. Although we get some scenes within the mountains (no surprise, given the author’s interests), the focus and the heart of the story is firmly set in the city of Ninavel. The author brings the city of Mages to life as convincingly and in as much depth and evocation of sense of place as she does the Mountains. Also, the magic system worldbuilding is well done…Character and the writing that evokes it is the other strength I want to mention here. Like its predecessor, the novel alternates between a first person perspective for Dev, and a third person perspective focusing on Kiran. The character voices are strong. An event early on does act as a large reset button on their relationship, perhaps too much of one. However, this has the salutary effect of helping make The Tainted City stand very much on its own rather than being a sequel dependent on the first novel…What could have been better about The Tainted City? Especially with the ever growing complicated landscape and geopolitical world, a map and concordance was sorely missed. This is a big and rich world, and more and more of it is impacting on the story, even if the story itself is physically set in only a slice of it.

Sparky at Fangs for the Fantasy opines: “I love the way this book examines “end justifies the means” thinking by repeatedly showing its victims – whether it’s the way Dev and Kiran were betrayed by Marten, how Ruslan hurt Kiran to bring him back to their family or even the utter goal of trying to stop and remove a truly corrupt and dangerous city – but at what cost? The manipulations – and willingness to sacrifice people – on the past of the “good guys” are not presented as rosier or happier or more right than the manipulations of the “bad guys.”…Which brings me to the characters – I love the characters in this book because they’re all very real. From Marten and his manipulations and conflict over them, to Lena’s conflicted morality, to Cara’s free and easy ways covering her serious dedication to Kiran’s much abused world view. Even the bad guys – Ruslan and co and Dev’s ex are all very human with human motivations and understandable world views. You can see real people making the decisions of all these characters, their emotions feel real, their actions understandable, their view points, even when wrong, are ones you can see actual people having…This book has some good female characters – the determination and skill of Cara who also brings a brightness to book which is often so gritty. There’s the moral centre and conflict of Lena. There’s the enigmatic and cruel Lizaveta and I can’t get past the idea that she may be manipulating Ruslan and be the true power behind the throne and there’s even the painful, cunning yet redeemed Jylla. There are some other female characters but they are in minor roles – which is rather my problem with the female characters – they’re all rather minor…I would have loved to see any of these women take a more active role, or a role that wasn’t so related to the men around them. I liked them all as characters – as I liked all the characters in this book – but they deserved more presence in the book itself.

Finally, Kristen at Fantasy Cafe explains: “I wasn’t quite prepared for just how much I ended up loving The Tainted City, though. It has everything I like to see in a secondary world fantasy – a fascinating, well-built, and consistent world; excellent, authentic characters who are put to the test; an exciting story that kept me on the edge of my seat; and magic that is not easy and often requires making tough choices. It’s a very thoughtfully written fantasy book, but not in a way that’s trying too hard or takes away from the story being told. It’s thoughtful in how seamless the characterization and world-building are, and the way good and bad are balanced in societies and characters…Similarly, the characters are well-rounded without falling firmly into the category of “black” or “white.” Some were darker than others, and they all had to face difficult choices that showed what they valued and where their priorities lay – Dev had to figure out just what he’d sacrifice to keep his promise to save Melly, and Kiran had to decide just how far he was willing to go to be a blood mage. Those other than the two main characters also had to wrestle with various choices, and I really appreciated that no matter what a character did or how much I might disagree with it, I always understood WHY he or she acted that way…In fact, the entire second half of this book was fast-paced, urgent, and kept me on the edge of my seat. If I had one complaint, it’s that there were some parts in the first half that were a little slow, but it really wasn’t a bad sort of slow that was boring. It just seemed to take awhile to really get to the heart of the story, but once it did things moved at a rapid pace and it was a fast ride full of twists and turns right until the end.

 

These reviews are spot on. The strength of The Tainted City lies in the characterization. The characters all have their own voices and own motivations, which makes them realistic and believable. In fact, much of the character interaction is what kept me glued to the story during the first couple hundred pages, when there really isn’t much action going on. Dev seems more of a hothead than I remember, and Kiran goes through some major changes. Cara returns but has very little page time, while Ruslan, Mikail and the opposing mages like Martin and Lena get greatly expanded roles. Schafer’s plot makes sense, and her magic system is so thoroughly explained with rules of not only what can and cannot be done, but also why and when and how it can or cannot be done. It’s one of the most complex, detailed, and flawless systems I’ve ever seen explained. In fact, it’s so complex that at times I’m not sure I fully grasped the nuances.

As I just mentioned, there isn’t a lot of action right away. Oh, there’s lots of interaction, mystery, and intrigue, with people trying to use their wits, along with any other means of leverage, to gain advantage. It’s a testament to Schafer’s talent that she not only managed to keep me engaged through all of it, but also took the story in a few directions that I didn’t see coming. Dev and Kiran return to Ninavel, and immediately Kiran is given to Ruslan. The remainder of the plot focuses on how Dev attempts to get Kiran back, while protecting his ward Melly, and all this happens concurrently with the search for a serial killer of mages. As the pages turn and the tension builds, I began to wonder how Schafer was going to possibly resolve these multiple plot threads in a satisfying way.

The worldbuilding is excellent, but as Paul stated, a map is sorely needed. While there was a big emphasis on mountain climbing (a hobby of Schafer’s) in the first book, there is very little climbing here except at the beginning and end of the story. Most of the setting takes place in Ninavel, and it is a fully realized city, with slums, mansions, markets, warehouses, embassies, a cistern where mages create water for the city, a royal palace, and the confluence, a source of magic within the city. It is not quite as exciting of an environment as the mountain climbing in the mountains in The Whitefire Crossing was, but it’s not a bad setting.

The conclusion does reach an ending. Is it satisfying? I suppose it depends on your expectations. With one more book to go, I wasn’t confident that the ending would be a happy one. In fact, the ending of this book reminds me a lot of the ending of the first book – not necessarily happy, but with reason to hope that things will work out in the next book. There is one thing I hesitate to bring up, and it is a minor quibble, and that is the plot itself, which returns Dev and Kiran almost immediately to Ninavel as the story begins. Why is that a bad thing? Well, if you think about how the plot of The Whitefire Crossing was to get Dev and Kiran away from Ninavel, The Tainted City returns them right back there by page 65. In other words, this sequel undermines the entire plot of the first book and makes it totally unimportant in the grand scheme of things, since almost all of The Tainted City is set in Ninavel. Again, this is minor, but still not a great treatment of the previous plot in my opinion.

In conclusion, I enjoyed The Tainted City thanks to the strong characters and detailed magic system. While it wouldn’t crack my Top 20 list that includes the year this book came out (2012), it is a good book that kept me intrigued and makes me glad that I took the effort to hunt down The Labyrinth of Flame.

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?