The novel about which I post today I picked up in the airport as I was leaving Belfast for Barcelona. I felt a desperate need for high fantasy that was nearly unquenchable the entire time I was in Ireland. Unable to find a book quite small enough to carry about with me, I settled on Shaman’s Crossing because Robin Hobb was a name I knew from working in the bookstore. Sadly, it was not at all the fantasy I desired. Having my high expectations dashed by the book I choose seems to be a common theme these days. Still, it wasn’t bad and it certainly wasn’t boring.
Hobb’s novel tells the story of a boy named Nevarre, who has known his destiny from the moment of his father’s promotion to noble status. As a second son, he is destined for the King’s cavalla (the cavalry of the nation) and a glorious future as an officer in the military. But his father’s well-intentioned hiring of a savage instructor to give Nevarre’s military education a (somewhat unfair) boost results in a change to Nevarre’s character that haunts and hounds him for the rest of the novel. He is possessed by an old spirit that tugs him against his loyalties and his destiny. It sounds as though the reader should have a clear idea of which side of him they’d like to win, but in reality I was very torn. I felt, almost, that I was rooting for the wrong side at all times.
Hobb’s novel has an interesting and somewhat unique plot, though the style in which it’s written is somewhat generic and dull. There is not much about her writing style or word choice to latch on to. She tells the story and that’s that. The cast of characters that she creates, especially Nevarre’s roguish cousin Epiny, is varied and well-rounded, with plenty of heroes to encourage and villains to hate. Nevarre’s patrol-mates have a lot of learning to do over the course of the novel, and they each deal differently with the suffering inflicted on them by the older cadets in the academy. Hobb has a decent grasp of human psychology, and the myriad possible ways different people can react to the same situation. Though the novel is ultimately about Nevarre, she has a very large group of characters to develop and maintain, and she does this very well.
Epiny is in a class of her own. By far my favorite character of all, she is everything a proper Victorian lady is not. She is loud and out-spoken, spoiled, flighty, flirty, and a dabbler in the occult arts. This practice is encouraged by her mother, who sees it as a way to court favor with the Queen, and despised by her father as a dangerous phase that could get his senseless daughter in trouble. Despite the fact that everyone views her as unruly, stubborn, and somewhat airheaded, Epiny proves that she has both a sharp mind and genuine conjuring powers. In a book that can at times be very heavy, dark, and unsettling, Epiny is usually the lighthearted comic relief that always comes at much-needed moments.
Being a book that is almost 600 pages long, a detailed account of the plot would be too onerous. All I’ll say is that, of course, Nevarre’s path goes wildly off course (isn’t that always the way of it?) and he must use everything he’s learned in his short experience to defeat both corporeal and phantom enemies. It is sluggish at times, but for the most part was an entertaining read. If you’re looking for a novel to read on your vacation this summer, this one is interesting enough to keep you piqued and long enough to last you a whole trip.