The first thing to say is that while I’m giving Shaman’s Crossing four stars, I’d actually recommend not reading it until you’ve got Forest Mage in hand. It isn’t because Shaman’s Crossing ends on a cliffhanger (it stands fine on its own), but because it’s a very slow set-up to what is to come and I think disappointment in the pace will be assuaged if one can move smoothly from the set-up book to the (I assume) more quickly moving sequel.
The other thing to say is move on if you’re looking for standard fantasy. There be no dragons here, at least up to now. Nor any dwarves, elves, dark lords, quests, or bands of hopelessly outnumbered bad guys. Instead, we have an early American “Indian Wars” setting meeting a typical feudal fantasy setting. The central country has just won its first war, moving out the Plainspeople (translation — killing them or forcibly resettling them) so as to move farther east, where they run into the second group of indigenous people — The Specks — a forest dwelling race with rumors of magical ability that may or may not be causing a virulent plague spreading on the frontier. The Plainspeople also had their magic and charms, though these were obviated by the use of iron and increased rifle range. As the king pushes the frontier further outward, he entitles his “battle lords” — soldier’s who did well, much to the dismay of the old lords. This political triangle forms a constant undercurrent of tension throughout the novel, played out in echoing fashion at the military academy where almost all of the action takes place.
Though perhaps “action” is the wrong word. Just as there are none of the traditional fantasy setting trappings, there are also none of the typical action scenes — no massed battles, no storming the dark keep, no sword fights or spell casting. Instead we have a slow coming-of-age story.
The main character, Nevare Burvelle, is the second son as is thus bound since birth for the soldier’s life in this highly structured society. First sons are the heirs, second sons the soldiers, and so on (women make nice wives and housekeepers). Nevare’s father was also a second son, though he’s now one of the new lords. Just about all of the story follows Nevare’s first year at the military academy where he struggles with academic and ethical issues, with the growing antagonism between the sons of old and new lords, with forming relationships, with various forms of injustice. A major secondary plot, though it takes up far less space until the final 100 pages, involves Nevare’s strange connection to one of the Shamans of the Specks and his fear that he is somehow a tool to be used against his own people.
As mentioned, there is very little “action” in Shaman’s Crossing and those who want it will probably admittedly be quite bored. There are other possible obstacles to enjoyment. One is simply that the main character, his father, and many of the representatives of this main society are simply not likeable much of the time, spouting racist lines about the Plainspeople and the Specks or sexist lines about their own women. The utterly inflexible structure, where people’s lives are already set for them prior to birth, and the way this structure is blindly followed is also difficult to relate to. And Hobb has done a risky thing here by having her main character not the usual hero in these sort of situations — Nevare does not question his society, his role, his society’s racism or destructive policies; he is as stuffy as most of his kind. While this serves to give him a place to move from (thus the coming of age aspect), there are certainly times you just want to shake some sense into him.
The characters who do undermine the status quo are two of his squad mates — both of whom Nevare often becomes infuriated with for their willingness to think outside the strictures of society. In a nice touch, one of them seemed at first to be the cliched “fat guy who can’t make it in the military and becomes the butt of all jokes” but instead grows into one of the more insightful characters. The other character who doesn’t follow society, in fact fights against it more than any other, is Nevare’s female cousin Epiny, who refuses to be choked off like some pretty flower plucked and set under a glass. She adds a nice spark in any scene she’s in. Finally, thanks to his mystical connection to the Speck shaman, we sometimes get a nice view of how the other side — the “enemy” thinks.
Most of the side characters beyond those mentioned above and Nevare’s uncle are relatively flat, a disappointment in the book and for fans of Hobb’s other work. Some fall into cliché (the spoiled unethical rich kid) while others just have no personality, so that one could easily switch their names and not really notice or care. The scenes at the academy probably get stretched out a bit too long and will read overly familiar for anyone whose seen movies set in similar places — there’s the hazing, the unfair instructor, the bad food, and so on. And while the last 100 pages of the book pick up the pace, it’s almost too quickly, feeling a bit rushed. It’s also marred a bit I thought by a deux ex machina effect where some things are righted a bit too neatly.
Despite these problems, Shaman’s Crossing is a book that will reward the patient reader and in fact will grow on you as you continue. Come into it without a preset comparison, say to her Farseer books (unfair comparison anyway as those were so good), and you shouldn’t be disappointed.
The Soldier Son — (2005-2007) Publisher: Nevare Burvelle is the second son of a second son, destined from birth to carry a sword. The wealthy young noble will follow his father — newly made a lord by the King of Gernia — into the cavalry, training in the military arts at the elite King’s Cavella Academy in the capital city of Old Thares. Bright and well-educated, an excellent horseman with an advantageous engagement, Nevare’s future appears golden. But as his Academy instruction progresses, Nevare begins to realize that the road before him is far from straight. The old aristocracy looks down on him as the son of a “new noble” and, unprepared for the political and social maneuvering of the deeply competitive school and city, the young man finds himself entangled in a web of injustice, discrimination, and foul play. In addition, he is disquieted by his unconventional girl-cousin Epiny — who challenges his heretofore unwavering world view — and by the bizarre dreams that haunt his nights. For twenty years the King’s cavalry has pushed across the grasslands, subduing and settling its nomads and claiming the territory in Gernia’s name. Now they have driven as far as the Barrier Mountains, home to the Speck people, a quiet, forest-dwelling folk who retain the last vestiges of magic in a world that is rapidly becoming modernized. From childhood Nevare has been taught that the Specks are a primitive people to be pitied for their backward ways — and feared for their indigenous diseases, including the deadly Speck plague, which has ravaged the frontier towns and military outposts. The Dark Evening brings the carnival to Old Thares, and with it an unknown magic, and the first Specks Nevare has ever seen…