27. Shaman’s Crossing (Soldier Son Trilogy) by Robin Hobb. 607 p. Published September 2005.
Nevare Burvelle is the second son of his father, a new nobleman responsible for a piece of the plains recently conquered by Gernia. As his father’s second son, Nevare is destined to join Gernia’s army, as his father did. With the plains subdued, the King has continued his expansion into the forested hills, but his forces have been stricken by plague sent by the region’s inhabitants, the Speck. His father, a respected veteran of the King’s Cavella, seeks to enrich Nevare’s education by hiring Dewara, a plainsman. Nevare’s father believes the Dewara’s honor will keep him from harming his son, but Dewara has other plans. Hiking through the harsh plains, Dewara turns Nevare’s lessons into a harsh effort to break the boy and turn him into a warrior for his own people. Nevare, twisted by exhaustion and Dewara’s drugs, is set on a spiritual journey as his final lesson to fight the eldest magician of the Speck. But while in battle, Nevare is turned by her charm, and she seizes part of his soul. Dewara, disgusted by Nevare’s weakness, leaves him to die. But Nevare returns home and recovers from his ordeal, though strange dreams of tall forests plague him every night.
Soon after, Nevare leaves for the Cavella Academy in Gernia’s old capital. There he encounters the political derision of the old landowners against the newly appointed plains lords. Joining with many of the other new lord’s sons, Nevare suffers through school, making friends as he goes along. His only refuge is the occasional visit to his uncle in the city while on holiday, where he meets and befriends his cousin Epina, whom the Queen has noted for particular spiritual sensitivity. Epina notices an oddness to Nevare’s soul, but he dismisses her.
Nevare hopes to finish his first year at the academy, but politics plague him at every turn. However, a sudden attack by the distant Speck strikes at the heart of the kingdom, and Nevare and his friends are left bedridden. Nevare, struck with illness, must watch as the capital falls around him and come to terms with his own role in the attack.
Hobb brings her unusual gift for stark fantasy to bear in Shaman’s Crossing. Never one for romantic turns or happy endings, Hobb’s harsh vision of reality creates a story both beautiful and captivating. Admittedly, the plot tends to meander, but considering the detailed world building that takes place, it’s forgivable. What is interesting is how much of this world building is done from the viewpoint of Nevare, leaving much unspoken. The trials of Nevare ensnare the reader, creating a cathartic element that is unique to Hobb’s storytelling.
Rating: 3 out of 5