Robin Hobb is a name familiar to many fantasy readers, having penned the Realm of the Elderlings saga, consisting of three trilogies - The Farseer trilogy, The Liveship Traders, and The Tawny Man trilogy. These nine books have garned much critical acclaim and a global fan base. Shaman's Crossing is a book many of her fans have been anticpating, and it is an important book for Ms. Hobb on two fronts. Firstly, this is new saga is completely unrelated to the three previously mentioned trilogies, so many will undoubtably compare this to her previous works. Secondly, this is Ms. Hobb's first effort for her new US Publisher, Eos, an imprint of HarperCollins. With all of that said, how is the actual book? Very good. Very good indeed.
This novel is told through the eyes of soldier son Nevare Burvelle, in the first person, much like the Fitz novels, (Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies). Excluding Gene Wolfe, Hobb is probably the most adept writer when it comes to telling stories utilizing the first person narrative. Often, a shortcoming of this storytelling technique could be the inability of the writer to fully convey the nature of the supporting characters in the story. Not so with Hobb, one gets a full measure of Nevare's comrades, his family and those who rival him. In fact, I would say the supporting characters in this novel are as richly drawn, probably more so, than many novel's by Hobb's peers. Hobb's fans will likely not be surprised by this.
The story itself follows Nevare's early years as a soldier son growing up in a world with magic and gunpowder in the nation of Gernia, a nation expanding its borders, building roads and a nation on its way to becoming the dominant nation in the world. In Gernia, a soldier son is the second son of a noble-born soldier, marked to follow the soldier's path his father once tread. First sons inherit their father's land, whilst third sons are committed to the clergy. Nevare's father, Colonel Keft Burvelle, was granted lands and the title of Lord by King Troven for his many years of successful military service, making the Burvelles one of the new noble families in Gernia. This comes into play later in the story; however, the story starts early in Nevare's life as he is shown some early prejudices people hold against Scouts - people of the military on the outskirts of Gernia's borders.
Nevare, at the bequest of his father, undergoes a unique training under the tutelage of the warrior Dewara, a member of the Plainspeople whom the Gernian military defeat. The Gernian military now defends its borders against any uprising from the Plainspeople. Lord Burvelle wishes his son to be trained in many ways and feels training under an enemy will provide Nevare with insights his peers may otherwise be unfamiliar with.
"Some things he cannot learn from me or from you. Some things can't be taught to you by a friend; they can only be learned from an enemy."
However, Nevare gets an unexpected education for which his father did not bargain, an education that involved mysticism and otherworldly powers. Nevare undergoes a transformation of sorts as the magic of the Plainsmen and Speck people have long-lasting effects on the young soldier son. These scenes between Nevare and Dewara are relatively short, compared the remainder of the book, but this does not lessen their power.
From this abnormal education, Nevare then enteres the new King's Cavalry Academy, a military institute for soldier sons, which Nevare's father had a strong hand in starting up. The students in the academy are all noble soldier sons, both new and and old. Nevare's first year in the Academy comprises the remaining portion of the book, and this is where Hobb truly shows her characterization skills, fleshing out Nevare, as well as his classmates Spink and Gord, as well as the other soldier sons in the hall. As strenuous as Nevare's tutelage was under the Plainsman warrior, he learns as much and is put through the proverbial wringer even more so in his first year at the Academy. Events in the outside world, particularly the rising tensions between old nobles and new nobles, are felt in the Academy, as well.
On Nevare's initial trip to the Academy, he and his father stay at Nevare's Uncle Sefert's home, the Burvelle familial ancestral home. Being Keft's older brother, Sefert was the son who inherited the lands of the family and title of noble. Throughout the school year, Nevare visits with his uncle on more than one occasion, both at the Academy and at the ancestral home. Again, Hobb's strong character building skills can be seen here, the relationship between Nevare and Sefert is built up expertly. Nevare also forms a bond, of sorts, with his cousin Epiny, Sefert's flighty daughter. Initially, Epiny was somewhat annoying, intentionally I'm sure, but she grew on me as the story progressed.
Throughout this first year, and more so as Nevare's first year begins to come to a close, dreams and visions from his time with Dewara begin to haunt him. Nevare is torn between believing in what his dreams tell him and forging ahead in his studies. Unfortunately for him, these two converge, and bring me to perhaps, the only minor problem I had with the novel - the somewhat rushed resolution. This is not to say it didn't play out logically and consistently with the story Hobb laid out up until that point, because it was both of these things, it made sense. It just seemed to happen rather quickly.
My initial reaction for this book was satisfaction. I think a great sign of how much I enjoyed this book was the lack of sleep on a few of the nights I was reading the book, I just didn't want to put it down. While Hobb's scenes were not the most action packed, they were gripping, emotionally charged, and extremely compelling. She has a knack for putting her protagonists through some tortuous situations, but she does this so wonderfully and exquisitely that reading them is something you just don't want to stop doing.
It really isn't fair to compare this one novel against her previous nine novels, in terms the scope of the story and the breadth of character development. However, as a first novel in a new series, Hobb has achieved something very special, with a great amount of potential. The world she has created is something I feel we've only seen the surface of, it has strong parallels to frontier America, with the cavalry men encroaching on the lands of the Plainspeople. The magic, while somewhat sparse, is still powerful enough in the scenes where it is integral to make it rich with possibilities. While there is a sense of closure, Hobb has left ample room for the next installment, Forest Mage.
I have to also say something of the cover HarperCollins/Eos did for this novel, it is both symbolic of the story as a whole, and can be said to depict a specific scene in the book. It also says something of Hobb's well-earned reputation that her name is both on top of and larger than the title of the book.
On its own and as an opening novel in a new sequence, Shaman's Crossing will satisfy fans of Hobb's previous works, as well as readers looking for plausible, engaging characters in a magical and grounded setting. I simply cannot wait until the next volume publishes. Without reservation, I would recommend Shaman's Crossing.
© 2005 Rob H. Bedford