The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer
I’ve been introduced to more styles of fantasy writing in the past year than I knew even existed, which is inevitable as the genre evolves. One sub-genre that I did not expect was mountain-fantasy. I was first introduced to mountain-fantasy with Janny Wurts’ To Ride Hell’s Chasm, a harrowing account of a desperate escape through a terrain of natural wonders and hellscapes. Hell’s Chasm, despite its last third being some of the best fast-paced writing I’ve ever encountered, left me drained and frustrated that I didn’t love it as much as I wanted. The Whitefire Crossing, by Courtney Schafer, turns Hell’s Chasm on its head, but unlike its potential inspiration, does not suffer from a first-half drag. Schafer solves the riddle by introducing her mountain into the former portion of the novel, which improves on Wurts’ pacing if not on her prose.
Whitefire Crossing stars Dev, an outrider and smuggler from the desert city of Ninavel. Dev is tasked early on with smuggling not goods, but a living blood mage across the border into neighboring Alathia, a nation that keeps magic under iron-fisted control. Kiran is the goods, a young mage fleeing an even more powerful despot who also happens to be his adoptive father. In an odd authorial decision, Schafer attempts to split her points of view between Dev and Kiran, but does so with differing styles. Dev narrates in the first-person, and is the first character we meet, but Kiran is told in third-person limited point-of-view. Even having finished the novel, I struggle to grasp what purpose splitting the viewpoints serves. I know writers today are experimenting in an attempt to veer from old forms, and I recently read a book with three different first-person viewpoints all intertwining, but we have established tendencies for a reason. I didn’t find Schafer’s use of multiple points of view jarring or damaging in any way, I just didn’t see the point outside of novelty.
The only way to Alathia is over the Whitefires, a mountain range of epic scale and one Dev knows well. Dev’s history in the famed city of Ninavel is one of thievery and magic. Children in Ninavel, thanks to a massive confluence of power resting beneath the city, are often gifted with something called the Taint. This Taint allows them to perform magical feats that would normally take years of training by a gifted mage. The Taint also leaves right around the time puberty hits, and when this happens to Dev, the only solace he can find is that on the mountain. Climbing, for Dev, is nearly as exhilarating as wielding arcane forces, and he is good enough at it that it becomes his career. Because his use of the Taint almost universally revolved around stealing, smuggling also comes second nature.
Dev disguises Kiran as an apprentice outrider, and they attach themselves to a caravan heading through the established channels of the Whitefires. Dev is ignorant of Kiran’s true profession and equally blind to what chases them out of Ninavel. What follows is a harrowing dash through mountains both beautiful and deadly, with moments of tension to equal anything in fantasy.
As Dev and Kiran navigate the playground that Schafer has created, she is able to dole out the lore and world-building at a lovely pace. We learn about magic, which plays a pivotal role in everything to do with this world, slowly and in a way that is absorbable. Charms, in particular, play such an important role in people’s lives that they are treated much like we would a cell phone or electricity – we may not understand how they work but we can’t live without them. Schafer wields a deft paintbrush in these explanations, and while one might accuse her of too much telling at times, I found myself craving the conversations where her characters would talk about the world and its systems. Schafer also does something that I love and rarely see in magical fiction – she details the aftermath of large-scale magical warfare. In Ninavel and beyond, magic has consequence, especially blood magic, and Schafer is not shy in the details of who suffers and why. Often authors are so concerned with writing an amazing battle scene or wizard duel that they forget to follow the fireballs trajectory when it misses its target. It lands somewhere, and in Whitefire Crossing we are privy to that landing.
But Whitefire Crossing, like much fantasy written, has its share of cliches. Simon Levantine, a villain introduced halfway through the book, might as well come from a vaudevillian stage show, cackling as a train bears down on his latest victim. His use of the classic villain’s method of “holding innocents hostage to force protagonists to do his bidding” is incredibly tired, and I hope we either see a subversion of this in fiction or an outright banishment. Whitefire Crossing also gives us the “ancient civilization who left behind powerful artifacts” trope, and while it isn’t overdone as it is in some fantasy novels, I released an inner groan when it popped up. My only other complaints with Whitefire Crossing were the use of modern-day curse words and an overly elaborate and barely believable scheme by one of the characters; a ploy too fine in detail and scope to be feasible.
In all, Schafer has begun something worthwhile in Whitefire Crossing. She shows an intimate and detailed knowledge of human interaction and climbing jargon, has created a vibrant world full of people with varied and complicated personalities, and she knows how to write fast-paced scene-work. After finishing the first in her Shattered Sigil series, I am compelled to continue on to see where Dev and Kiran wind up. The end of Whitefire Crossing leaves their fates much in doubt, and it’s clear that this volume is just one part of something much grander. Will she succeed when she’s thrown from the wild and untamable mountain range?