Dev is a smuggler with the perfect cover. He’s in high demand as a guide for the caravans that carry legitimate goods from the city of Ninavel into the country of Alathia. The route through the Whitefire Mountains is treacherous, and Dev is one of the few climbers who knows how to cross them safely. With his skill and connections, it’s easy enough to slip contraband charms from Ninavel – where any magic is fair game, no matter how dark – into Alathia, where most magic is outlawed.
But smuggling a few charms is one thing; smuggling a person through the warded Alathian border is near suicidal. Having made a promise to a dying friend, Dev is forced to take on a singularly dangerous cargo: Kiran. A young apprentice on the run from one of the most powerful mages in Ninavel, Kiran is desperate enough to pay a fortune to sneak into a country where discovery means certain execution – and he’ll do whatever it takes to prevent Dev from finding out the terrible truth behind his getaway.
Yet Kiran isn’t the only one harboring a deadly secret. Caught up in a web of subterfuge and dark magic, Dev and Kiran must find a way to trust each other – or face not only their own destruction, but that of the entire city of Ninavel.
Schafer is currently running a Kickstarter for the last book in her ‘Shattered Sigil’ series, The Labyrinth of Flame, after the infamous Night Shade debacle left her series in a publishing limbo. Between that, and the long-term popular praise of her books, the time seemed right to ascend The Whitefire Crossing…
If epic fantasy is defined by journeys (as, say, the epics of Tolkein are), then The Whitefire Crossing is almost the archetypical epic fantasy: it is the story, almost entirely, of a single journey through a mountain pass, in the same way as Xenophon’s Anabasis is about a stroll to the beach. Mind you, it is on much smaller a scale than those epics, a much more personal novel about individuals moving in the world, rather than about grand forces shaping and changing it; of course, that’s just how it seems, and one suspects that as the series continues the repercussions of actions in The Whitefire Crossing will expand outwards, with greater and greater impact on a wider world. However, as contained in this novel, the broader international view is obscured, and we are concerned simply with Dev and with Kiran, and their clandestine passage (well, undercover) across a mountain pass to smuggle Kiran into another nation.
Inevitably, this is complicated, not least by the nature of the terrain; Schafer is a proud climber, and this shows in the course of The Whitefire Crossing, from the detailed descriptions (not overwritten, mind) of scaling a sheer rockface and, from a different viewpoint, watching a character leap seemingly into space; to the contrasting experience of a novice and an expert of scrambling across talus as it shifts and moves under them. It’s a brilliant piece of writing that makes the geography as much a secondary character as any of those who breathe; the mountains, valleys and plains are described with an eye for detail and a human touch that, without anthropomorphising them, Schafer gives them a life of their own, a character of their own, however staid and unforgiving that character in fact is. It’s an excellent piece of writing and includes some really detailed thinking about worldbuilding, geography, agriculture, economics and more that doesn’t get fed to the reader whole, but rather shines through by the obviousness of its presence (although I am left with logistical questions about Ninavel!)
The Whitefire Crossing is ultimately about two characters, and their shared – and less shared – experience. Schafer made an interesting choice in picking characters to centre her novel on who are in some key ways very similar, and in others very different; bruised and having just had their trust broken, each is in some sense running from something, in some way taking this job from necessity. While Dev’s necessity is more obvious, what Kiran is fleeing is clearer; similarly, while the betrayal of Dev’s trust is laid out from pretty much the word go, Kiran’s betrayal is implied from early on but what exactly happened to him is held back until quite late in The Whitefire Crossing. Both are interesting characters, and their growing respect for one another is fascinating, especially as Dev tries to maintain a professional distance and detachment from Kiran that strains under the enforced closeness of his task and of his suspicions of what is to come in Kiran’s future.
Because the characters are so interesting, the pain Schafer puts the reader through in the course of the novel is all the greater; from the first page, practically, characters are forced to compromise morally despite wishing to only do what they see as right, and to sacrifice for a personal greater good. The Whitefire Crossing is full of tragedies writ small and large, some of which are overturned later in the novel and others only compounded; some brought on by the foolishness of our characters, some inevitable, and some thrust upon them without any agency whatsoever, inevitable and insurmountable as, well, a mountain. Schafer, by making these characters interesting, human, rounded and engaging, makes that pain strike all the deeper, and the tragedies of the novel – especially the (by my lights) unjust ending – all the more pathetic.
The weakest part of the novel is its human (as opposed to environmental) antagonists. The Whitefire Crossing makes its various enemies for Dev and Kiran rather simplistic in their evil, for the most part; while one is somewhat leavened in some ways, particularly by a sense of family, the other is simply outright evil, with no thought but for his own power, and neither narrative nor character give any actual explanation for or justification of his actions other than “he wants power”. It’s a frustrating lack in a novel that is otherwise very interested in three-dimensional characters, the ideas of debt and obligation, of actions borne from love, of difficult choices made in impossible circumstances between different evils, and similar; yet its antagonists don’t seem to have any meaningful motivation beyond “being the bad guys”, in an almost Tolkeinian darkness that fits poorly with the shades of grey the rest of the novel is painted in.
In the end though, the antagonists aren’t actually that significant a feature of The Whitefire Crossing; it’s about Dev, it’s about Kiran, and it’s about the journey, and that, Schafer makes clear, is enough.