Courtney Schafer’s “Readers of the Lost Arc” series of blog posts has been a fascinating source for discovering underappreciated fantasy–mostly female-authored–from decades past. So when I saw a few recommendations for her own debut novel, The Whitefire Crossing, I decided to pick up a copy. The TBR being what it is, there was quite a bit of space between picking up a copy and actually reading it, but I finally cracked it open in December and was rewarded with an excellent and itself underrated adventure fantasy.
The Whitefire Crossing is told from two perspectives, one in first-person and the other in third. First is Dev, a mountain guide with a side business smuggling magical items across the dangerous Whitefires and across a tightly-controlled border into Alathia. But rather than an ordinary magical item, his cargo on this occasion is the other perspective character, a mage’s apprentice on the run from his abusive and terrifyingly powerful master.
For the first half of the novel, the basics are clear enough, but the execution is exceptional. There are environmental dangers aplenty, prying eyes to avoid, and the inevitable pursuit by a mage who won’t lose an apprentice so easily. Further, both main characters are prone to be reticent with information—for their own safety—and the struggle to trust each other provides just as much tension as the external dangers. Once the initial scene-setting is complete, it’s extremely difficult to put down, with characters that are easy to like, tension ratcheted sky-high, and a passion for the mountain setting that pours through in every page.
As the novel progresses into the second half and some of the pieces fall into place, the dangers shift more and more from the environmental to the magical, and what started as pure adventure fantasy takes on the tinge of epic. The dangers have increased, the stakes have risen, and more and more elements of the magic are brought into the light. And despite personally favoring epics over adventures, I found myself more entranced with the opening section. The epic pieces are well-executed, but they don’t manage to maintain the passion and galloping momentum of the first half. For a reader like me who is less invested in the magic, it really stands on the quality of the characters that had been established from the outset. And while the characters aren’t written in a way that generates real drama about what decisions they’ll make when the chips are down, they did build enough of a connection in the first half to keep me invested all the way to the end.
The Whitefire Crossing opens a trilogy, and there are certainly questions left open at the end of the novel. But the ending does offer a fair bit of resolution in its own right, and I would have no qualms about recommending this book to someone who is unsure of whether or not to commit to a full trilogy. It’s not one necessarily out to wow you with the twists and turns—though it does have a few—but anyone interested in a fantasy adventure in a stunning mountain setting should absolutely give this one a look.
Recommended if you like: fantasy adventures in harsh environments, mountain-climbing, likable leads looking to escape past mistakes.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s a Book Club book from way back, and presumably will fit more squares in 2023.
Overall rating: 16 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.