Courtney Schafer's debut, The Whitefire Crossing, book one in The Shattered Sigil was not only one of the biggest surprises for me last year, it was one of my favorite reads. The blend of Schafer's passion for climbing with the high use of magic and fast-paced plot had me reading my eyes out.
Because this is her second novel, I guess we have to ask (sorry it's in the contract), did she survive the sophomore slump? Yes, I answer, a resounding yes!! (with exclamation marks so you know it's true) The Tainted City [US] [UK] lives up to its predecessor and more.
Following the end of The Whitefire Crossing, Dev and Kiran are captives of Alathia, through which Kiran was successfully smuggled in his escape from his former master, Ruslan, but later captured. Dev working in the mines and Kiran working on the spell patterns contained in the charms and wards used by Simon Levanian who was able to disregard Alathia's powerful border wards which keep bloodmages, who rely on human sacrifice to fuel their magical power, like him out.
The Alathians preferred to execute Kiran and Dev, which is their normal course for bloodmages like Kiran and their minions, like Dev, keeping with their very strict laws against the use of any magic. However, their hands were stayed mostly by the argument of one Martennan, an Alathian in high standing and general proponent of acting reasonably. That's because although Kiran is a bloodmage, he would do anything to escape his past and that includes helping the Alathians strengthen their borders.
In keeping Kiran, the Alathians garnered the wrath of Ruslan who vowed to destroy them in his pursuit of his former apprentice, whom he considers his property. Just when things seem to be going well, Alathia's wards come under attack and even begin to fail as an unknown disturbance, or Ruslan according to Dev, assaults them.
Kiran and Dev are needed to find out what the problem is and it seems to be coming directly from Ninavel, the city from whence Kiran and Dev came and which is the diametric opposite to Alathia, allowing essentially any magic no matter where it is derived.
A small group is brought together to find out and solve the problem that is causing the wards to fail, which means a visit to Ninavel, yay! I say this because while it would be nice to discover more about Alathia, which is best done through the characters, Ninavel presents the opportunity to showcase all the magic that is involved in this world. It's a lot and it's awesome.
The magic permeates every page and this is probably my favorite part of the entire experience. Not taking away from great characterization, intense descriptions of climbing (which are cut down a bit in this volume), and the general readability of the piece (all of which I loved), the magic is still my favorite. Almost every problem, solution, engagement between characters, everything revolves around use of magic whether it's magical charms that allow nathahlen (non-magic-user) to use magic and essentially facilitates trade to full-blown mages who practice their art.
The reason behind Ruslan's relentless pursuit of Kiran is because of the deep and intricate bond he shares with Kiran that allows them to cast magic. It is not something that is built up in a day, it takes years and years and Ruslan refuses to start over.
Even Ninavel itself is completely based around magic. Set up on the largest confluence of magic (facilitates magic use) around, while Ninavel is great for mages, it lacks basic things such as running water. In order for the city to survive, mages are required to do magic to produce the life-giving resource.
In addition to the magic being everywhere, it is also extremely complex, requiring hours to set up and complete spells, using spell-lines with the requisite materials such as silver or blood and generally taking immense amounts of concentration and willpower. You can start to see how many problems can occur to create a compelling work of fiction.
Almost right away, there are some big surprises that I don't want to spoil, so with that, I'll jump into the protection of the spoiler warning for just a bit. I can't resist discussing these parts because they have me really introspective at the moment, having raised some interesting questions about the effects our life experience have on us.
Begin Spoiler [ One of the biggest surprises for me was the treatment of Kiran almost right away. Marten, as leader of the group, essentially sells Kiran out and delivers him directly into Ruslan's hands after promising to protect him and keep this exact thing from happening. Instead of torturing Kiran, which is what we're lead to believe will happen, Kiran's memory is erased for the period of time he was away and through the time that caused him to rethink his allegiances, when his lover, Alisa, was tortured and killed in front of him by Ruslan.
Throughout the rest of the book, Kiran still has no idea what's true, but he's also a clever enough chap to catch the subtleties that surround him, such as Dev's lack of fear around him (which all nathahlen have around bloodmages and mages in general).
This brings up so many things for me, but the characters all have trouble believing whether Kiran is a good guy anymore. Having those parts of his mind erased, does that still mean he is averse to killing? He seems to be fine with Ruslan, so does that mean he's back under Ruslan's control? Doest that change the person you really are? Can bad events actually be good for you?
The Tainted City surely got me thinking about erasing the hard parts of your life and if you'd be the same person after. Not that they're fun or ever preferred over not having them, but they do make you someone different and maybe you like that person a bit more than otherwise.
At least I'm pretty sure if we didn't experience hardships we'd probably all be huge jerks, lacking empathy to see what others are going through. ] End Spoiler
Making me think my own thoughts might just be unforgivable. :D
One of the best reads this year as well as last, Courtney Schafer has delivered again. Not only with engaging characters and compelling plot, but with something new and diverse that I can't wait to come back to in The Labyrinth of Flame, book three in The Shattered Sigil Trilogy.
4 out of 5 Stars (Highly Recommended!)
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher
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