Dev is an outrider: a talented mountaineer who helps scout out potential rockslides and avalanches for merchant convoys crossing the Whitefire Mountains. He also has a nice sideline smuggling illegal magical items from the mage city of Ninavel across the border into Alathia. But when he’s asked to smuggle a person across the border—a young man named Kiran who turns out to be an apprentice mage fleeing his abusive master—Dev finds himself having to risk his own life and those of his friends, or face breaking the promise he made to his dying mentor: to save a young girl from being sold into prostitution.
I confess that the main reason I picked this book up is that Schafer was one of the other debut authors on the recent blog extravaganza that I was involved in. I tend to prefer my fantasy low on magic, and I’ve also found that I don’t enjoy descriptions of wilderness travel that much, so the premise of this book didn’t set me afire. However I’m glad I didn’t let my prejudices stop me, as it turned out to be an enjoyable read—to the point of being difficult to put down!
For one thing, Schafer has a light touch with detail and resists the temptation to which many writers succumb, of being so in love with their specialist subject that they do the literary equivalent of cornering you at a party and boring your socks off. There are some descriptions of climbing, and a lot of obvious knowledge of mountain conditions, but for the most part these are merely the framework for the human story of Dev and Kiran’s desperate flight from Kiran’s master.
As for the magic, I’m no aficionado but it didn’t seem all that different from what I’ve seen in countless other fantasy books. However as with the climbing it wasn’t wrapped up in too much jargon or described in obsessive detail, so it didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment of the story. The jargon that is used has a distinctively Russian flavour, though it was hard to tell if this was specific to the small group of mages using it or a wider aspect of the worldbuilding. Still, it made a refreshing change from the usual Latin-based magical vocabulary, which has seriously worn out its welcome thanks to Harry Potter. Also, the master mages are deliciously psychopathic in a way that makes complete sense, so that they are at once utterly despicable villains and yet chillingly believable people.
What sold the book for me, though, was the combination of two charming lead characters and a plot that never lets up the tension for long. Dev’s passages are told in first person, in a laconic, fairly modern idiom that soon had me hearing Jensen Ackles as his voice! Because of his well-developed character, his inner conflicts didn’t come over as whiny or angsty (as they can so often do), but as the voice of a man embittered and frustrated by the unfairness of life. By contrast, Kiran’s scenes are told in third person, with the result that his voice doesn’t come out as strongly as Dev’s. I’m not clear on the reason for the different approach, though it may be that Schafer needed a certain detachment from Kiran in order to make him more morally ambiguous, or possibly to avoid any whininess and excessive self-pity, since he’s both less sassy and street-smart than Dev and a survivor of far worse childhood abuse.
As for the plot…at the beginning of the book, Dev and Kiran don’t trust one another at all, leading to a lot of interpersonal conflict to spice up what could otherwise be a somewhat dull travelogue. And even when they do reach a measure of mutual friendship, that’s torn apart again by the complex scheming of the mages and smugglers, all of whom are trying to take advantage of Kiran’s flight over the border. I confess I didn’t see the final twist at the book’s climax coming, and yet Schafer had set it up nicely. The pace slackens towards the end, as the consequences of Dev and Kiran’s actions are played out, but the denouement also serves to introduce an interesting new character whom I hope will appear again.
One minor gripe I had was that in addition to the very welcome asterisks between scenes (I read this in ebook format), PoV switches were marked by the character’s name in brackets as a header. I didn’t feel this was necessary, given we have only two PoVs and they are pretty distinctive. Also, because PoV breaks often happen mid-chapter, it just looks less elegant than George R R Martin’s chapter-named-after-PoV approach. There seems to be a definite trend on the other side of the Pond for editors to want to simplify things as much as possible for readers—c.f. Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s recent account on SF Signal of the combined UK/US edit of his book—so I don’t know whether the headings were in the original manuscript or added by the publisher, but I for one felt patronised by the device.
Overall: a very entertaining and assured debut, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, The Tainted City, which is due out in October. Although looking at my TBR pile and my writing deadlines, I may have to wait rather longer than that…