The Whitefire Crossing
Night Shade, 2011
The Whitefire Crossing, the debut novel of Courtney Schafer, is an exciting adventure fantasy in a unique world. On its surface the plot is a simple one: Dev, a smuggler and talented climber, is in desperate need of cash and so takes on a dangerous mission to smuggle a person out of the city of Ninavel and into the country of Alathia. What makes the tale interesting are the complications surrounding that job and the rich sense of history behind each character.
I’m rather a fan of the working class hero. Dev is a prime example of that trope. He is a simple man who is good at his job. Sure his smuggling activities are something less-than-legal but the only reason he does that it is to earn the much needed cash to fulfill a promise to his deceased mentor. That is rich and familiar territory. There is more to it than that as well though. Dev, a mountain guide and outrider, has a deep seeded love of climbing. In truth, it is almost an addiction and one tied deeply to his past. The children of Ninavel, the city where Dev lives, are often born with the ability to float and fly. The orphan children are almost always taken in by gangs of thieves and trained to use their magical talent to break walls and steel. Eventually the gift fades and the children are sold off to often unsavory types. For Dev his skill at climbing is an attempt to recreate the glory of his former gifts. There is a certain Dickensian feel to his back story, orphaned thief turned semi-honest outrider, that gives his character a bittersweet and borderline tragic feeling.
Our other main character Kiran is interesting in a different way. Born with the innate magical talent that didn’t go away he was taken in by mages; the elite upper-class of the mage-founded Ninavel. Isolated at a young age he is reared to be a wielder of great magical power and to look down at the lesser untalented people of the world. Like Dev’s climbing, Kiran’s gift of magic is very much like an addiction constantly tempting him and undeniably dangerous. That discussion of innate abilities, whether it is Dev’s faded gifts or Kiran’s magical abilities, is one of the novels most important aspects and the examination of who we are is a result of those gifts, despite those gifts, or something else all together. What defines these characters is at the crux of both their internal and external conflicts.
The Whitefire Crossing is completely character driven. The narrative split more-or-less evenly between Kiran and Dev. There are blessedly few moments where Schafer detours from the novels conflicts to provide necessary exposition and most of the world building comes as a direct result of learning who these characters are. By providing readers with the perspectives of two character with wildly different viewpoints experiencing the same things it allows Schafer to enrich the world she has created and give readers a more complete view of things. This is particularly evident during Dev and Kiran’s flight over the mountains where switching back and forth between the characters allows for a very natural exploration of the mechanics behind Kiran’s magic. Later, towards the novel’s end there are similar moments with the magicians of Alathia and contrast between their methods and that of Kiran and his former master is explicitly examined in a way that feels surprisingly subtle.
While I found the opening of The Whitefire Crossing a bit slow once Dev and Kiran are on the road the novel picks up and never slows down. Schafer does an phenomenal job of making you care about these characters, calling that feeling into question, and bringing you right back to caring again. The world building is just present enough to provide detail for current and past of our leads without getting in the way of plot. There is certainly a lot of room to explore world beyond both Ninavel and Alathia but I never felt deprived by the lack of that exploration. The Whitefire Crossing is a complete tale that comes to a satisfying conclusion that simultaneously introduces a complication that sets up a future volume and I am looking forward to seeing future adventures with Kiran and Dev.