The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer: Delightfully original and exciting debut

Whitefire Crossing, the first book in the Shattered Sigil is Courtney Schaffer’s debut that came way back in 2011. I’ve had my eyes on this one since then. And yet I never got around to reading this book. I had heard all good things about Courtney’s terrific debut – combining her love for mountaineering with the undying passion for anything fantasy. So I’m really glad I finally read this one. This book also happens to be my first ever audio-book that I finished listening to. So hey, claps go!

A terrific debut by all rights – a wild thrilling adventure set atop treacherous mountain passes laced with a delightfully detailed magic system along with an unforgettable and charming duo of protagonists – Whitefire Crossing is a refreshingly original take on epic fantasy – with an entirely new setting for the story (well most of it anyways)  to unfold - The wild untamed mountains called Whitefire where the winds can tip you over and the slightest whistle can bring down avalanches. Courtney brings to fore her fierce love and passion for mountain-climbing – the techniques, the tools and the slangs – are aplenty in the beginning but it never gets tiresome. In fact, it’s a bundle of sheer fun. As we prepare for the ride into the mountains along with our two chief protagonists. 

First one is Dev – a seasoned mountain-climber hardly out of his teens, acting as a guide for the merchant caravans making their long way across the mountain-pass. Dev is also a smuggler on the sides – and for the right price, will smuggle anything across the borders of Ninavel to other outlying states. Including “human” cargo. Having recently been cheated out of his life-saving by his partner, for Dev – this mission is a make or break. And the money is tempting. But he – for all of the gruff exterior of a rough and tough “street-sider” – is a man( or boy!) given easily to softer emotions. And he actually needs the money to extricate a girl from a street-side gang-lord’s clutches.
Our second main protagonist Kiran is a “high-sider”- in fact, a young mage fleeing the iron-clutches of his master, Ruslan. Kiran’s got his own share of troubles – from what we gather about Ruslan, he is a mean wicked mage who revels in his show of power and doesn’t shy away from violence – and has plans of enslaving Kiran’s will.

Dev takes on Kiran – making him pose as an climber apprentice for this out-riding expedition and thus, the initial half of the book is set up for some exciting mountaineering action on treacherous passes. Courtney cleverly builds up her narrative – doling out hints about the conflict through references to both Kiran and Dev’s past and builds up the world.  A harsh unforgiving land – with snow avalanches, beasts and slippery routes – Whitefire mountains come to life in Courtney’s elegant prose and her first-hand experience in rock climbing shines through. Infusing Dev and the settings with a vigour and charm unmatched by anything else. I was sucked into the fast-paced story despite myself – and before long, I was wholly invested in this wild adventurous ride through the snow-laden mountainside, holding my breath as Kiran and Dev try and dodge out of Ruslan’s grips.

The second half of the book, however was much slower. The settings are urban and a lot grimmer with the introduction of a second villain into the proceedings. And the tone is decidedly a slower one but a lot more forbidding in the sense that Courtney really goes into flexing her magical systems and this really builds up that sense of tension. While it certainly lacked the wild heady sense of adventure set in lush mountains, the proceedings were sufficiently grim and intriguing enough to roll the plot forwards. Courtney sets up things nicely for further instalments with the conclusion to book one and I for one will be diving headlong into “The Tainted City”.

I loved both Dev and Kiran – but clearly Courtney sets up Dev to be the more flamboyant of the two – the daring thief with a gold of heart – But she certainly does enough to assure us readers that Dev is a pragmatic man at the end of the day and not a romantic fool. Kiran, however is the perfect candidate for the romantic notions of bravery and heroism. A mage – who refuses to indulge in all the “evil” things that Mages usually perpetrate on ordinary citizens, Kiran is fleeing his destiny. And has a grudge or a score to settle ag ainst his mentor and now captor, Ruslan. And is still coming to terms with understanding his magic.

Two male POVs too strong for you? Fear not, because for Courtney brings in Cara – a headstrong, independent female character, an outrider and climber by profession to counter the two male protagonists. A strong-willed character, Cara comes across as an honest girl who is not afraid of speaking her heart out I would love to see more of Cara. Also there are frequent references to Dev’s partner, Jylla – whom too I hope to see in the further instalments of the Shattered Sigil series.

There is Magic in the book. A lot actually. And trust me, it is actually pretty delightful. But getting into the twisted details of this can get a little confusing. So I would let you readers sink into it yourself but I cannot help but talk about the concept of “Tainted” – where kids born with magical talents – like say, Climbing or Flying without help – actually grow out of their “Taint” once they hit puberty. An event called “Change”. Fascinating really.

So in short, Whitefire Crossing is a very enjoyable fantasy fare – starting out as a heady adventurous ride atop mountain passes soon blossoming out into a grim tale of backstabbing, intrigue and a lot of magic. It’s a debut that signals of great things to come and I expect Courtney to fully hit her strides running with the second tale in this series. Which I am shortly getting around to. 


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