I recently finished reading the first novel by new author Courtney Schafer: The Whitefire Crossing. It was one of the free books I got at last year’s World Fantasy convention in San Diego. I definitely recommend it, if you enjoy epic fantasy. The plot is tight and suspenseful, the main characters are interesting, and the secondary world in which the story takes place is one you want to learn more about. The premise is that a young smuggler named Dev takes on a dangerous job, trying to smuggle a runaway apprentice mage into a neighboring country, while being pursued by the apprentice’s furious master. It ends on a not-quite-cliffhanger, where there’s a pause in the action but it’s also clear that Dev’s story isn’t finished. But the back cover of the book does warn that it’s “Book I of The Shattered Sigil“, so that’s okay. I definitely want to read Book II, to find out what happens next.
While I did think the book was excellent, it did have a couple of flaws. We’re told over and over (and over, and over) about Dev’s motivation for accepting such a dangerous assignment: he needs the money to keep the daughter of his deceased mentor out of slavery. But I thought this could have been shown more effectively, perhaps by drawing more parallels between the young girl in danger and Dev’s former lover, who was sold into slavery at a similar age (not in a creepy way; just in the sense of him not wanting the same thing to happen to his mentor’s daughter). Also, the villains are cartoonishly evil, and I tend to prefer stories that explore the complexity of what makes someone evil (or good, or in-between). But the characterization of the two protagonists (Dev, and the young apprentice Kiran) was complex and interesting enough that I could overlook those flaws, and the author used the alternating viewpoints very effectively to tell the two halves of the story. As an author myself, I was definitely paying attention what Shafer was doing there; also to how skillfully she handed the unfolding of the plot and the building of dramatic tension.
The cover, by David Palumbo, is also excellent, and is one of the reasons I chose to read this book over the half dozen other new 2011 novels I got for free at World Fantasy. Not just because it was pretty, but also because it signalled pretty clearly what sort of book this was, and all other things being equal I’ll usually choose the epic fantasy novel first. But the fact that the cover was attractive and professional-looking certainly didn’t hurt, nor did the fact that the book was published by Night Shade Books, one of the best-reputed medium-sized publishers of fantasy. (These are all things that I think about as I write my own novel, and listen to the debates about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing.) Though on the other hand, a few years ago I read a free-from-World-Fantasy novel published by Penguin, with a cover by a much more famous artist, and that book was awful. (I’m not going to say which book it was, since my motivation in discussing books on my blog is to recommend books that I think people should read, not slag other hardworking authors.)
It’s good to see epic fantasy being written by other women, too. I don’t particularly seek out the work of other women writers; I read whatever interests me, no matter who wrote it. But most of the big name authors in the field tend to be men, so it’s encouraging to see other women writing great fantasy novels and getting them published by major houses.
If you’re a writer, Courtney Shafer’s website also has some excellent, candid information about the process of finding an agent and getting published, so be sure to check that out!