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5.0 out of 5 stars An excitin, well written and fascinating fantasy book, 19 Sep 2012
This review is from: The Tainted City (Shattered Sigil) (Paperback)
Before I write anything else, I'll mention that during the last couple of years Night Shade Books has published exciting books from several talented speculative fiction authors. Courtney Schafer is a perfect example of such an author, because her books are excellent fantasy entertainment for adults. (I have to mention that I have lots of respect for Night Shade Books, because they have courage to publish quality fantasy, which differs from mainstream fantasy.)

I'll also mention that I think it's important to read The Whitefire Crossing before reading this book. You have to know what has happened before, because otherwise you won't understand what's going on.

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The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of The Tainted City and its plot structure is "Wow, what an amazing fantasy book!". I enjoyed reading the previous book,The Whitefire Crossing, but this book is so much better and more complex than The Whitefire Crossing that I loved it very much. (Writing a second book in a trilogy can be difficult and challenging, but Courtney Schafer has managed to write a book, which surpasses the first book in every area: character development is better, worldbuilding is more complex and the story has more layers than before.)

Before I write more about The Tainted City, here's a bit of information about the first book and its happenings:

In The Whitefire Crossing Dev agreed to take Kiran across the Whitefire Mountains from Ninavel to Alathia. Dev didn't know anything about Kiran and Kiran's secrets troubled him. Kiran had a good reason to keep his secrets, because his was running away from a very dangerous person who was a threat to his life. Dev and Kiran didn't trust one another, but they had to find a way to trust one another. Things didn't go as well as they had planned and they had to face several difficult and dangerous situations during and after the journey. When they reached Alathia, they soon found out that things got from bad to worse and they had to fight for their lives...

The Tainted City fantastically continues the story, which started in The Whitefire Crossing. The events take place a bit after the events of the first book. At the beginning of the book Dev is a prisoner and tries to find a way to escape. Kiran is also a tightly guarded prisoner, because the Alathian mages don't trust him (he's a blood mage and Alathians don't like blood mages). Kiran helps the mages and tries to find out how Simon Levanian crossed the Alathian border with the help of a charm. Kiran's access to magic has been blocked, but he can still sense and see magic. He's afraid Ruslan Khaveirin and desperately wants to get rid of him, because he knows that he'll never be free of him unless something is done. Dev and Kiran are given a chance to get their freedom back in excange for participating in a mission, which will take them to Ninavel. The purpose of the mission is to find out what's causing earthquakes and problems with the magic. Unfortunately Dev and Kiran don't know what's in store for them - they soon find out that betrayal is easy and even friends can be deceitful... (This is all I'll write about the story, because I don't want to reveal too much information.)

I didn't think it would be possible to raise the quality of this series, because the first book was an amazingly well written book, but I was wrong. Courtney Schafer has exceeded all my expectations with this book, because it's an astonishingly good fantasy book for adults.

The Whitefire Crossing only hinted at the possibilities of The Shattered Sigil trilogy, but The Tainted City shows the full potential of this trilogy. Courtney Schafer showed lots of promise in The Whitefire Crossing, but now she delivers an even more satisfying story, which makes the readers marvel at her imagination (she clearly has a gift for this kind of storytelling and she uses her gift wonderfully).

The first book was a sophisticated and complex story about prejudice, sacrifice, magic and friendship. This second book is also a similar story, but now the stakes are higher and more things happen to the characters. I think it's fair to say that The Tainted City delivers on all fronts and pleases the author's fans in every possible way.

Everybody who has read quality fantasy probably knows that worldbuilding is one of the most imaginative parts of writing and good authors have a tendency to create wondrous and believable worlds. Courtney Schafer is one of these good authors, because her worldbuilding is sophisticated and amazingly nuanced. The worldbuilding may seem minimalistic at first, but it's far from it, because careful readers will notice how perfectly the author has constructed her fantasy world.

The Tainted City reveals several new things about the world, the characters and the things which have led to the current state of affairs. The author writes surprisingly well and engagingly about Alathia and Ninavel. The political and cultural differences are handled nicely in this book. The comments of the characters reveal quite a lot about the cultural differences and complications involving political things. In this fantasy world little things mean a lot.

The Whitefire Crossing was an exciting adventure fantasy, but this second book is a bit different kind of a book, because the author focuses on elements, which add more depth to the storyline and make the story even more entertaining than before. The Tainted City has adventure elements, but it's closer to mystery fantasy than pure adventure fantasy, because the characters try to find out why the confluence has become unstable and why it causes fluctuations. I've always liked fantasy books with compelling mystery elements, so I was impressed by the author's way of writing about these things. They remind me a bit of the similar elements in Martha Wells' Ile-Rien books and Lynn Flewelling's Nightrunner books.

There are also more differences between The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City. The first book allowed the readers to fall in love with the beautiful Whitefire Mountains, but this book lets the readers fall in love with Ninavel and its wonders (towers, alleys, bridges, buildings, people etc). This kind of a change of scenery is welcome, because the readers have a chance to read more about Ninavel.

Courtney Schafer's prose is wonderfully descriptive and she pays a lot of attention to small details, which add depth to her fantasy world. She keeps the story flowing and adds surprises and shocks to the story when needed. She starts the story slowly, but adds fascinating plot twists and surprises along the way. I was impressed by the author's skill to continue the story in a new and fresh way, because there are authors who have had trouble continuing the story and making things interesting for the reader (second books are often "middle books" and suffer from lack of excitement etc, but in this case everything is in order).

I think that fans of Martha Wells, Bradley P. Beaulieu and Lynn Flewelling will devour this book in one sitting, because Courtney Schafer's writing style will appeal to their readers (she uses similar kind of storytelling and knows how to entertain her readers).

Now I'll write a few paragraphs about the character development and my feelings about it.

Character development is flawless and works perfectly, because the main characters are different and have their own feelings and motives. Courtney Schafer writes lovingly about the characters and makes her readers care about them.

Dev and Kiran are realistic and believable characters, because both of them have their own hopes, problems and fears of which the author writes in an interesting way. The author makes both of these characters come to life with her words. In my opinion Dev and Kiran are among the most memorable fantasy characters ever, because they continue to develop and become more interesting with each new book. In this book the author writes more about them and their past.

I think that several readers will agree with me that it's interesting to read how Dev and Kiran return to Ninavel. Their return to Ninavel isn't happy, but they do what they can and try to survive. Reading about their struggles and problems is thrilling and fascinating.

Here's a bit of information about the main characters and their situation at the beginning of the book:

Dev has promised to save Melly, but fears that he won't be able to save her. He yearns for the mountains and wants to climb them again. He also wants to help Kiran, because he feels that he's partly resposible of his situation (he feels that what he did to Kiran in Alathia is similar to what happened to Kiran in Ninavel). Kiran fears the wrath of Ruslan Khaveirin and wants to be free of him, because he knows that Ruslan doesn't give up easily. Kiran is also haunted by Alisa's death and the circumstances which led to her shocking death.

The conversations between the characters are fluent and enjoyable. For example, the moment when Kev and Cara meet again is perfect, because Dev has feelings for her. The scenes with Kiran and Ruslan are also amazing, because the author builds up tension and keeps the readers guessing what will happen next (the scene in which Kiran and Ruslan meet each other is a stunningly effective and memorable scene and the dialogue is sharp).

The feelings and actions of the characters are fully believable - it's easy to believe that both Dev and Kiran suffer, because they feel helpless against the overwhelming odds. The way the author writes about the feelings and actions of the characters is touching and compelling - she conveys the feelings to the readers with a few words and happenings and avoids melodramatic dialogue. She creates surprisingly complex (and even vulnerable) relationships between the characters.

The minor characters also have their own feelings, actions and motives, which is nice. For example, Ruslan is motivated by power and greed, and Marten is motivated by his sense of duty, because he works for the good of Alathia. Marten is an interesting character, because he seems friendly and wants to help people, but he always thinks about his duty first and then other people. Lizaveta, Cara and Lena are also interesting characters.

Alisa is also worth mentioning, because Kiran's memories and thoughts about her are touching and painful, because he misses her and partly blames himself for her death. Reading about her and her fate is fascinating (everybody who has read the first book knows what happened to her, so I won't write more about her death and the tragic events which led to it).

I think that the readers will notice how fluently and easily Courtney Schafer writes about male and female characters. Although the female characters are minor characters, they're important and nuanced characters. She pays attention to their differences and lets each character be different. I think it's also good to mention that reading about the differences between the mages and normal people is fascinating.

There are shockingly brutal scenes in this book, because certain characters try to manipulate and dominate other characters. Some of the characters are willing to make huge and unexpected sacrifices in order to get what they want. Things aren't black and white in this book, because there are several shades of grey and even good characters seem to be able to make bad choices. The good characters try to justify their doings by saying that they did what they had to do, but there are always victims who suffer from their doings. I love this kind of realistic storytelling, because it makes everything more intriguing.

Here's a few words about the narrative modes:

The author uses first-person narrative mode in Dev's chapters and third-person narrative mode in Kiran's chapters (the author used both narrative modes in the first book too). These narrative modes add freshness to the book. Using two narrative modes is difficult, but Courtney Schafer succeeds in it, because both characters are different and writing about them in this way allows the author to explore several things more deeply.

In my opinion Courtney Schafer has a sophisticated sense of humour. One of the most delightful things about this book is that Dev makes sharp and witty observations about characters. His observations feel funny and amazingly accurate - this is quite an achievement, because fantasy authors don't usually write this way about the characters. For example, Dev's negative feelings about Marten are easily noticeable.

Courtney Schafer writes about magic in an entertaining way. Her descriptions of the spells, wards and other magical things are interesting and the readers want to know more about them. I'm sure that every reader wants to know more about the confluence etc. It's great how she writes about the Alathians and their feelings towards magic - Alathians don't like magic very much and abhor blood magic. They seem to think that a person who uses blood magic is a brutal monster and must be executed immediately.

What I like most about the magical elements is that magic can't be used without paying a price for it (for example, blood mages use blood and the life force of others to fuel their spells and innocents may be affected by their spells). There are different kind of mages, wards, charms and spells in this book, so readers who are interested in these things will be in for a treat.

I'm sure that readers will notice that this book is full of surprises and revelations. This is good, because they keep the readers interested in the story. I'm not going to reveal what secrets the author reveals, but I'll mention that it was interesting to find out about the homosexuality of certain characters (sorry, I won't mention the names of these characters - you'll have to read the book in order to find out who they are ;)). It's nice that the society treats these characters respectfully and doesn't try to treat them differently because of their sexuality.

It's truly amazing how brilliantly and fascinatingly the author writes about climbing and all things related to it. It's easy to see that she loves climbing and knows how to write about it. Dev's mountain climbing skills are put to good use in this book, so the readers have a chance to read about them. (I think it's possible that certain readers may become interested in mountain climbing by reading about Dev's skills.)

Before I finish writing this review, I think I'll mention a few words about how this book can be categorized, because there are probably readers who want to know about it. The Tainted City can be categorized as sword-and-sorcery kind of fantasy, but in my opinion it's much closer to high fantasy, which is full of magic. (This book can be read as an entertaining fantasy book, but when you think about the happenings, you'll come to the conclusion that there's a lot more to this book than plot twists and revelations.)

As you may have already guessed, The Tainted City made a huge impression on me, because I praise it. The Tainted City is one of the best and most exciting fantasy books of 2012, so it deserves all the praise it gets. With this book Courtney Schafer proves that she's one of the best and most talented new fantasy authors.

The Tainted City is bigger, better, richer, more complex and more exciting that The Whitefire Crossing. Within the pages of The Tainted City the readers will find human life and feelings, magic, difficult situations and exquisite storytelling. There's a surprising amount of depth, details and happenings in this book. The author leaves several authors behind her, because she takes the storyline to a new level and adds more depth to it as happenings gather momentum. She has created a complex and deliciously dark and entertaining story which will please fans of political machinations, magical energies and difficult relationships.

I have to admit that I've become a big fan of Courtney Schafer and I can hardly wait to read The Labyrinth of Flame, because I want to know how the story ends (just like the previous book, this book left me wanting more). I'm sure that the third and final book of this trilogy will be an unforgettable and even more complex book than the previous books. Read this book and let yourself be hooked by the story!

Highly recommended!
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The Tainted City (Shattered Sigil)
The Tainted City (Shattered Sigil) by Courtney Schafer (Paperback - 25 Sep 2012)
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