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cover of The Whitefire Crossing

Dev is a smuggler with the perfect cover. He's in high demand as a guide for the caravans that carry legitimate goods from the city of Ninavel into the country of Alathia. The route through the Whitefire Mountains is treacherous, and Dev is one of the few climbers who knows how to cross them safely. With his skill and connections, it's easy enough to slip contraband charms from Ninavel - where any magic is fair game, no matter how dark - into Alathia, where most magic is outlawed.

But smuggling a few charms is one thing; smuggling a person through the warded Alathian border is near suicidal. Having made a promise to a dying friend, Dev is forced to take on a singularly dangerous cargo: Kiran. A young apprentice on the run from one of the most powerful mages in Ninavel, Kiran is desperate enough to pay a fortune to sneak into a country where discovery means certain execution - and he'll do whatever it takes to prevent Dev from finding out the terrible truth behind his getaway.

Yet Kiran isn't the only one harboring a deadly secret. Caught up in a web of subterfuge and dark magic, Dev and Kiran must find a way to trust each other - or face not only their own destruction, but that of the entire city of Ninavel. (source)

Subtle — adj
1. not immediately obvious or comprehensible
2. difficult to detect or analyse, often through being delicate or highly refined: a subtle scent
3. showing or making or capable of showing or making fine distinctions of meaning
4. marked by or requiring mental acuteness or ingenuity; discriminating

The Whitefire Crossing struggled with subtly. It stood, said, "Come at me, bro!" and got hammered directly in the face.

My lack of patience with the lack of subtly in this story contrasts with the fact I consumed it in three days like it was a package of green-only gummy Lifesavers. I'm conflicted, but then again, I'm often conflicted with books. In other news, if you step in water, you get wet. If I had a rating system it would look a little something like this:

Stars x Infinity: *recommends to everyone forever*

Stephen Colbert crying


4 stars: ...I'm conflicted; help! Everyone read it and let's talk about our emotions!

3 stars: I HATE THIS BOOK WHY WHY I HATE IT EVERYONE READ IT OKAY I HATE IT. *recommends to everyone for two weeks*

2 stars: ...there are no viable ships in this book for me to imagine making out while naked together in a hammock. LAND, HO.

1 star:

Stephen Fry saying he almost cares.

0 stars:

Business man walking away from a conference window out a high rise window with text that says I'm done.

This is exactly why I don't use ratings. Talk about a useless metric for my endless array of feelings.

It's also no surprise I disagree with the entire Internet about the writing in this book. It's serviceable enough to get the job done and tell the story it wants to but that's all; it has no aspirations to be more subtle, less "let me hammer this point...INTO YOUR FACE.". I generally don't like to talk about the particulars of writing, because goodness knows how much questionable/beginning writing I've stomached (and let's not joke, written in endless streams of bad terrible no good burn it with fire horrific badfic) for the greater good of the OTP and delicious sexytimes (so much bad porn. SO MUCH). It's also a personal preference, too, (which is what I think happened here) and what can you do about this but just hope for better luck next time? But I am also mad as hell at the writing in this book because for crying out loud, I am not a bumbling ignoramus. I've done Hooked on Phonics. I can read and also reason my way out of, at the very least, an extra-strength paper bag. I may have been fooled by The Italian Job, but come on, it was complicated! I've gotten better since then!

I don't need the narrative to explain, via its characters, every single plot twist, character motivation and action, and surprise story development in livid, gruesome detail. I really don't need to be told all the various connections I should be making, via Kiran or Dev's flapping mental jaws. O Narrative, could you please reassure your characters that I'm possessed of at least average intellect, and can puzzle out these details if you just leave a few clues lying about? In fact, I'm feeling a little creeped out how you're all up in my grill telling me how I need to interpret every tiny development in the story, and would like for you to take a few steps back and think about if you really want to be That Guy in our relationship. A lady likes to think for herself. I'm not great at it (I still need someone to explicate classical literature for me) but I like to give it a shot before you just spoil my game and vomit everything out as soon as an interesting scene crops up. I really wished you would've worked a little harder at pinning shut the yapping maws of some of these verbose, over-sharing, "who needs narrative tension, anyway?" whiners for a few chapters. The harder they tried to be subtle or remind one another to be subtle, the worse it went. And the clearer the narrative tried to make things via explanation, the more confused I got (this happened with almost every aspect of Pello's existence — a character Dev suspects is a spy — and colored all his involvement in the storyline).

That's not even considering the fact that Dev spoke in similes. I read all of them. Twice. It was awful. What's great world-building for one is "Oh my god, not AGAIN." for another. It wasn't just the similes, but that the similes that were made to enrich worldbuilding and characterization of an otherwise likeable character that made me want to tape his mouth shut. They only succeeded in making me develop an eye twitch and and ask questions like what the hell a Varkevian demon singer was, what in the actual hell they do, and if it had any relevance to the story at hand (spoiler: no). They continuously yanked me directly out of the narrative which was already on The List. It also meant every other use of simile by all the supporting characters also stood out to me as if they were on fire. For now, some examples from the first 100 pages:

"Damn, Bren, laying it on like a Sulanian charm dealer, weren't you?" (p. 8)

People melted away from the middle of the street like rime ice in noonday sun [...] (p. 10)

Colorful magelights gleamed and sparkled in the highside towers like Suliyya's thousand jewels of legend [...] (p. 12)

[...] wailing curses like a Varkevian demon singer [...] (p. 21)

[...] who or what back in Ninavel had Kiran jumping like a frightened snaprat? (p. 33)

No need to clutch it like a southerner with a devil-ward charm (p. 59)

[...] you can quit twitched like a roundtail in a snare. (p. 61)

[...] my jaw throbbed like a demon signer's drum (p. 72)


In summation of the writing in this book: if you're not me with my weird hang-ups about narrative and dialogue flow, you're probably golden, and you're going to find the book an outrageously fast read and a new favorite. It's like Cliffhanger with magic, pissed off mages, lots of death, destruction and games of cat/mouse (but without fighting for suitcases of money in the mountains).

Magic plays a big role in this book. Unfortunately, I can't explain it beyond the basics, because it was still being explained to me during the Final Battle, and oh, also after the Final Battle, too. Every time something new happened, we had to stop and go over how the magic in this world pertained to the event taking place, and what it meant, and how the magic was going to be used, and what that magic was going to accomplish. Eventually (around 200 pages) I just gave up trying to parse it, because it felt as though even if the rules of magic didn't change, every single instance of magic use (or use of magical object) was going to be just different enough from previous explanations to require some more info-dumping about the magic (most of the time, with bonus horrific imagery). However, given how much there is to remember about it and the complicated symbiotic nature of some of it, it's pretty easy to simply follow along and trust it all works. I will not speak on whether it's a great magic system or not; I really don't read enough fantasy to know one way or another, but I found it all pretty cool, from the charms to the serious business life energy bits.

Of course, not everything is shared via the loudmouth characters. One of the strengths of this story is its ability to keep certain things hidden until the moment where it becomes most horrifying for the reader and the character experiencing it: certain plot progressions, the limited and biased perspective of Dev and Kiran both allowed some of the resolutions to be pretty miserable and/or surprising. It didn't succeed every time — see: aforementioned blabbermouth protagonists — I will give the book a round of applause that when the second (or third, I guess, as it depends on if it's actually a reveal to you) Big Reveal, happened, I was shocked, because not only did I not expect it, I didn't consider the question that Dev asks Kiran myself given that the book makes such a point to be so specific about the magic system. On the other hand, I'm glad I didn't, because if I had I suspected it would've been less of a Big Reveal and more of a Dev Finally Knows What We Have Known For Several Chapters...Again.

Some Other Things Slightly Spoilery Things That Made Me Cobbsquint:

1. This book fails the Bechdel test. It has important women, but they never speak to one another; they all exist in a sphere of men. Also, I know the convoy probably had other women in it besides Cara (who was one of the convoy bosses), but the book also seems to dive into the Smurfette Principle in several places. There's one notable woman in the convoy (and in the primary, active cast of the book, as well), one notable female mage that we never see in the main narrative, and on top of that, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl for Kiran... So, fine, SF/F, what else is new? I wouldn't have really pinged on this, except—

2. All woman important to the plot are often defined either by their sexuality or how they relate sexually to the protagonists. I especially loved the part where a woman blames herself for a man not accepting no for an answer (p. 262) instead of being like, "wow, too bad that jackass couldn't take no for an answer after I changed my mind and said NO". Consent: this book has some issues with it, which is weird because it seems to be somewhat about the matter of consent and especially concerned with the (oftentimes sexual) consent of one of the male main characters.

2a. In fact, Dev has himself Sexualities Past, Present, and Future to contend with. It's almost magical. Even the kid, who only appears once at the very beginning is a driving force in the plot with a larger character motivation for Dev that doesn't get revealed until the very end. WHY?

I understand that it's important to reveal some character motivations at the right time, but I'm just going to go out on a limb and say that the reasons for Dev taking Kiran across the mountains and why he keeps taking him across are maybe relevant. I did spend quite a bit of time wondering why the book kept trying to convince me Dev was an asshole (via his thoughts about his former partner, Jylla), because it was clear he wasn't. I don't know why this book didn't put that revelation, at the very beginning to enrich the reasons why Dev said yes, and why he kept saying yes even when he should have been saying HOW ABOUT NO and running the other way. That's the motivation — problematic as I find it — that drives much of Dev's forward momentum. Although I guess this would have ruined—

3. Special snowflake main character makes women with rules about sex break her rules just for him after his surprising, heart-wrenching tale of valor. Dev's full revelation to Cara and the reader would have had more meaning if there wasn't some Hollywood-esque, lowest common denominator, out of nowhere hookup that comes along later in the middle of my adventure-rescue tale. Just because the dude's been good and has taken a beating doesn't mean he deserves a nice lay because he's been patient and upstanding in the face of adversity. It doesn't mean he deserves any woman to break her longstanding, narrative-reinforced rules about fucking dudes like him while he reminds her about her rules. Maybe this would have bothered me less if Dev hadn't done that. Anyway, the sex straight up felt like payment for something the woman did wrong and I am not down with that.

I want to see less "women as a reward" and more "women contributing to a cause without having to fuck the hero". The narrative can tell me all it wants that Dev is attracted to Cara, but the lady has rules. It's not romantic; Dev pretty much blammo'ed that chance via outright lies, lies of omission, and "you can't handle the truth" nonsense (until, of course, he needs her specifically to unfuck his situation) multiple times. Sex does not belong in this equation. "You moron, how did you get yourself into this? I guess I'll help you get out of it since I like your face most of the time." does.

4. the abusive, evil mages are overtly homosexual while no one else is? Listen, I'm not sure. But every time some mage or another character centered firmly in the "BAD GUY" column let their gaze linger suggestively over Kiran's body or touched him I wanted to throw up. Either the book did a GREAT JOB making these dudes creeps or it needed to do a little bit more work at world building some sexual and social advances, because the only mildly positive reference to mutual same-sex relationships comes at the beginning, when Dev reacts like I've seen plenty of dudebro assholes react when they get accused of maybe having sex with other dudes.

Cara snorted. "Some apprentice you've got there. Sure you didn't bring him along just for some fun in bed?" I made a face and reached for a knot [...] (p. 45)

He only does this once. This is not, by itself, a bad thing, because Dev might be dismissing her suggestion as he would never abuse his position of authority over someone. But with all the other data points, it's hard to come to that conclusion. So same-sex relationships are common on convoys, but does their existence in that sphere mean that they're only common in that particular temporary space (i.e. fun, not serious, not allowed elsewhere)? The only other relationships we see are heterosexual relationships. Narrative, what are you trying to do?

Moving on from Spoilers of Doom...

Some of the ability of the narrative to not give things away was tied to the structure, which put Dev's sections in first person and Kiran's sections in third, which...okay, yeah, I can see how that might work. However, it was beyond weird. I can live with it (characters are ultimately awesome) but... I simply don't buy that ease of writing makes it okay to divide perspectives; this is an area of irreconcible differences. Sure, it might be harder to hide things in first, but surprise: writing is often hard. "Easy" is for mainlining episodes of Hoarders and stuffing your face with chocolate covered pretzels. Not writing. If choosing the easy path to in order to tell a story is a plus then a lot of my problems with the narrative make a lot more sense, because I am the person who is going to skip Easy Mode and run straight to Hard Mode and bash my face against it until I win. I think with the right use of dual perspective, Kiran's section could have been in first person without the disjointed bumps of switching from first to third every single time (unfortunately for this choice, I found Dev's section better at keeping the things he wanted to secret. Oops.) Anyway, even if I find it odd and flawed, I still thought that the book used the dual perspective to its full effect. It did an ace job at setting the right perspective at the right time to retain some mystery. There's a section about a thunderstorm I looked back on in impressed awe.

The end, which I will emphatically NOT's complicated. How can I say that I knew this journey Kiran had so meticulously planned wasn't as easy as he was making it out to be, while also being like HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE THIS IS REALITY?. I was disappointed when my personal prediction turned out to not be true, but I still sat there like—

Cat staring accusingly at a human with a feather dangler off screen with text saying omg it was you it was you the entire time

And then reread huge swathes of the book itself and went "I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS, IT WAS RIGHT THERE." This is a skimpy way to say it, but I didn't suspect at all the way this book resolves the chase. I am...actually kind of in love with the plot twists in this book even if they didn't go the way I predicted they would in my head? If I have issues with the tension elsewhere in the book, the tension in the scenes right before and right after this section of the story were deliciously awful; that sinking, rigid certainty that absolutely everything is going to go straight to hell in the next three seconds. I hated it and loved it and screeched in rage over the complete unfairness of it all. I would say that the book is worth the time just for this moment, and for what it can teach you about abuse victims who have finally had enough.

From all of this, it would be easy to say I didn't like this book. Except I did like this book, because I am adept at isolating things that bother me for the greater good, which in this case is: a man's love for the apprentice he never knew he wanted until he had one in his hot little hands; Guidebook to Horrific Soulbonding Chapter 13: How To Escape Abusive Magical Relationships; the hills are alive and used to create awesome scenes; daring (but really dumb) rescue attempts; delicious double crossing cookies; and the magic of friendship. And as a bonus for me, there is touch-trope in this book. If you're not into slash, that's...probably not going to be as exciting as it was to me. SORRY.

I, upon this trope revelation, went back and re-read key parts of this book and squealed out loud in the breakroom at work. It's asking for hurt/comfort fic. Secretly, I'm a shallow fangirl, and that's okay. This is why I want everyone around me to read the books I do; so when I love the characters in a book and want them to go on adventures together (SEXY adventures) there's someone I can make read whatever I write for veracity's sake. So of course, I came for the cool premise, and stayed for the emotional connection between two totally different men.

My absolute, beyond a doubt favorite part of this story are Dev and Kiran. Dev shows all the bravado and gruff interaction with the world that comes from being, even at his age, world-weary and suddenly alone after knowing the warmth of family. Kiran is naturally shy and reserved, those traits exacerbated by the things he's risking his life to run away from. They clash, at all turns, as their ability for lying to each other and themselves falters and ultimately fails once they're alone in the mountains.

Kiran made me ache. Portraying abusive relationships is never easy, and although the narrative is pretty on-the-nose about it, Kiran's misery eclipses all the hiccups. If you've never been abused, mentally, emotionally, and physically, it's hard to get across how even imaging not being in that situation makes you roil in shame for even considering that you deserve anything: to love as widely and as hard as you want; to have the choice to make mistakes and learn; to exist minute to minute knowing that you are safe. Kiran has none of these opportunities, and the book is both the journey toward him taking them for himself through the blistering, abject misery of the distance — sometimes both mental and physical — abuse survivors have to travel to escape. What's more terrifying than dying, frozen in the snow? I would argue that being cut down by someone you love who you also hate is at very least, comparable, if not worse. At least the snow doesn't tell you that you asked for it. At least the snow doesn't use you at every turn for their own benefit.

We meet Kiran on the run, but we don't know what from — and the more that I learned, the more I wanted to be like SMALL GOVERNMENT IS BROKEN, THIS IS BULLSHIT. This isn't a world free from slavery, sexual coercion, or rape. This is not a world where consent is a given. It's a story about how one person decides he deserves the right to give his consent and if the world will not deliver it to him he will take it until he is forcibly stopped.

But it's also a story about how another person is trapped with personal connections and responsibilities to that same broken system. Dev is, through his own failings, hanging loose and open and just as vulnerable as Kiran is. He's not personally beholden to an abuser, but he's the product of a system of abuse that will take advantage of him at every opportunity. The Taint children the book talks about — the children who can touch the magic in the world freely unlike the adult mages who have to get down and dirty with the workings of it — are Dev's past and importantly, something he can't let go of. All that power at your fingertips and your use of it the way to win attention, affection and love? Dev's ultimate weakness is that he can't let go, and isn't it just the case he keeps going back, tied inexorably to the system he escaped from, trying to reproduce the luck he had with money, even though his was won with kindness? Dev knows trust and love and safety and the book doesn't hide that he believes everyone should have it. But Dev is the answer to the question the book asks: are you only in this for the benefit for you and yours? Are you only in this for the profit? How do you move on from an event in your life so large that it encompasses you every time you do the very thing you love? How do you learn to live with that kind of loss?

Kiran and Dev's stories parallel nicely in this way, especially regarding magic and their feelings toward it which alternate between YES YES YES and NO NO NO with unsurprising frequency given that this is an adventure story across treacherous mountains where magic is a life/death roll of the dice and they have to rely on and trust each other in less than ideal circumstances. I, at least, think it's a question worth reading for (and then writing awesome fanfic about it afterward, because I REALLY want the story where Cara and Melly become lifelong convoy partners.).

Seriously though, tropes about touching. It's like this book unfolded, from sparkling paper, an extremely slashy present for me.

And if I was the type to do ratings...if we go by my completely arbitrary and ever-changing system, I give this book a solid CONFLICTED. Whatever that means.

Cory Matthews saying calmly: I'm on an emotional rollercoaster.

Sequel, please don't break my heart. ;___;

Other Reviews:
Fantasy Cafe, Staffer's Book Review, Fantasy Review Barn, yours?

Supplemental Material:

Date: 2013-02-27 02:14 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I have been on the fence about this for AGES and I was just this week looking at it again trying to decide to get it or not. Then, I saw this review on my feedreader and I was like, YAY SOMEONE WHOSE OPINION I TRUST FINALLY I CAN DECIDE.

But much like you I remain conflicted! I THINK from what I saw from your excellent review, I could BOTH love and hate this book? But for now, I still don't think I want to take the plunge, maybe wait and see what you think of the sequel first?

Yes, I will do that.

Ana (Smuggler)

Date: 2013-02-27 05:44 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I loved this book, but I also love you for wanting subtlety. Over the last few books I've written I came to learn that fantasy readers don't really want subtlety, and now I bang every point over and over whenever I get the chance.

I don't really think Courtney's intention was to frame it so only the bad guys were gay - the diverse orientations among the characters make that reading impossible for me.

My first time commenting on a review of a fellow author! Really I thought it was a great review, though I loved the book more than you.


Date: 2013-02-27 09:35 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Thanks for the welcome! I should have made clear I wasn't criticizing you for criticizing her or ... now I'm confused. Anyway, I understood you didn't find it malicious or purposeful. And it is something we authors have to watch - what is in our heads doesn't always exactly translate to the page. Please do not apologize. That is one reason why I hesitate to comment on reviews. I truly feel that reviewers deserve to complain/criticize/etc. without being harassed by authors :)

As for the whole subtlety issue, I know. I prefer to do a good bit of work when I'm reading (most of the time - sometimes I want an easy read). Others not so much. I hate being anvil-icious and I literally grit my teeth as I write the same hint for the fifth time ... but you know what? Some readers still don't get it. So it's a balance, really, and we risk annoying the more attentive readers so the less attentive ones won't be lost. I've asked myself lots of times if fantasy is really the genre for me ...

Anyway. Thanks again.

Date: 2013-02-27 11:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Amazing review! I'll be really interested to see what you think of the second book in this series. I liked the first, but at the same time, I wanted a lot more from it. The second book gave me more of what I wanted and I LOVED that one. SO MUCH.

I'd also like to see more books with subtlety. It makes me sad that more fantasy readers don't seem to want that because I want to read more books that contain subtlety.

- Kristen

Date: 2013-02-27 11:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
A marvelous way of looking at the good and bad in a book; I think you've really taken it to task where it needs to be taken and celebrated what deserves to be celebrated. I hope the sequel is marvelous, just for you.

Date: 2013-03-03 01:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I love that angle on it—reading all the sides of a book. Perfect way to put it.


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