I really enjoyed reading this book, and I consider it a favorite. Emily at Embuhleeliest, my buddy-reader in all things Hobb, and I completed the Realm of the Elderlings books last year and really wrapped it up by reading a novella and a short story set in its world earlier this year. We then took a break before jumping into Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy, which is fantasy but set in a different world than the Elderlings books and which begins with this novel — Shaman’s Crossing.
I had such a good time reading this novel with Emily that I slowly fell into a little reading and blogging slump. It took a while to move on from this story, especially since the books I picked up after it were lackluster. I also had a hard time drumming up energy to create new posts for my blog because I was procrastinating on reviewing this. I needed to get out my thoughts on it, but there were so many that I didn’t know where to start.
Soldier Son trilogy, book 1
Like the Farseer trilogy, Shaman’s Crossing begins with the protagonist, Nevare, as a young boy learning about his station and duty in life and the world beyond his father’s lands. Through him, we learn that he lives in a very patriarchal society that is also very religious. Sons are treasured, of course, and the religion dictates that the first son becomes his father’s heir while the second son serves as a soldier; the third son should be a priest, the fourth son an artist, and the fifth son a scholar. Nevare is the second son and strongly believes his destiny is to become a soldier, like his father.
Nevare and his family reside in an expanding kingdom called Gernia, which makes me think of “old world” empires, like England and France. Since Gernia lost its coastal lands to another kingdom, the king decided to expand the kingdom east, further inland. With his army, especially the cavalry (called “cavalla”), mounted soldiers who are highly revered in the army and are made up of nobles, the king captures and colonizes the lands belonging to the Plainspeople, but his army is stumped at the foot of the Barrier Mountains, where the Specks reside. The Specks are people who have dappled skin and live in the shadows of the forest. They are a mysterious folk who respect nature and seem to draw their strength from it.
As the son of a new noble, Nevare’s goal is to join the king’s cavalla and distinguish himself in the army. To prepare him for such a destiny, his father hires tutors and instructors to train Nevare and even gets one of the Plainsmen he defeated to instruct Nevare in the ways of the Plainspeople and, apparently, to force Nevare to be a leader. This doesn’t go as planned, and Nevare barely survives the Plainsman’s harsh instruction, which included a spirit quest that seems to have marked Nevare for life and may have changed what Nevare’s destiny is.
Eventually Nevare goes off to the King’s Cavalla Academy to be trained. There, he encounters much classism and hostility from those unhappy with the influence that new nobles (like Nevare’s father) are gaining in society due to the lands the king bestowed to them in his attempt to colonize the Plains. (The king granted lands to second sons who distinguished themselves as battle lords in the army.) Things ramp up when a mysterious illness that previously only affected those trying to infiltrate the Barrier Mountains plagues the city where Nevare is studying to become a soldier… (And I’m gonna lamely end this here because I don’t know how to wrap up this recap, 🤪.) (Goodreads)
I’m glad I went into this book not knowing anything about the story that will follow and not expecting it to be like the Realm of the Elderlings books. I was really worried about the latter because I was craving more stories set in Hobb’s Elderling world when I started this book. But Hobb’s storytelling style hooked me as soon as I started on Shaman’s Crossing and quelled my desire for the Elderlings books. Plus, the protagonist in Shaman’s Crossing, Nevare, reminded me of Fitz, so that helped too.
The story is rich with events and details that made for great discussions in my buddy-read with Emily. So because I can’t think straight and want to do nothing but rave about it, *warning* my thoughts below might not make much sense. I’ll do categories to see if that helps.
**SPOILERS** below and also **LONG-ASS REVIEW** because I wanted to share everything 🙂
Writing & Narration
Loved the writing. It’s descriptive but not too much so. Having read Hobb’s books from the Farseer ones up to this one, I enjoyed seeing her talent grow and mature with each book I read. Shaman’s Crossing was published after the Tawney Man books (my favorites in the Realm of the Elderlings series). I was sold on her writing style from the first book of hers I read — Assassin’s Apprentice. It took me a while to get used to the Liveship Traders books, but eventually I got hooked on those too. By the time I completed the Tawney Man books, Hobb’s writing was catnip for me. I easily fell for it.
I also liked how Shaman’s Crossing is narrated. Like the Realm of the Elderlings books that focus on Fitz, Shaman’s Crossing is told in first-person, and I love how Hobb uses that perspective in her stories, especially since the narrators are so young. Reading from such a perspective can sometimes be frustrating — and it was in this book — but it worked so well in the story. I especially liked the moments when I noticed that Nevare is maturing and even shedding his father’s opinions of the world to form his own.
Also like the Farseer books, this one is told in retrospect. Nevare is reflecting on his younger years, but I’m not sure how he’s doing it. I suspect that he’s writing down his reflections, like Fitz does in the Farseer books, because soldier sons are suppose to maintain a journal of their experiences and the places they visit. I assume Nevare went the extra mile and started with his childhood.
Oh man! This is one of my favorite things about the book. I love Hobb’s worldbuilding. It’s detailed, it’s rich, it’s immersive, and it always makes me wish for illustrations to see some sort of depiction of it.
The Midlands, where Nevare is from, made me think of the U.S. in the 1700s or so, and Old Thares, the seat of the ruling monarch, made me think of London way back when. (Can you tell that I’m horrible at history? Lol!) We have an old kingdom (Gernia) slowly losing power and wealth and seeking to replenish it through imperialism. It uses its military force to expand inland, conquering, colonizing, and uprooting the natives — the Plainspeople. In order to totally subjugate “civilize” the Plainspeople, the Gernians steal their land and try to strip them of their culture, language, and magic. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) Nevare begins the story enmeshed in the ethnocentrism and xenophobia of his father’s beliefs despite his curiosity and even admiration of the Plainspeople. It makes me wonder how much he will change by the end of the book, especially considering how the spiritual quest he went on affected him.
I consider the politics part of the worldbuilding, and it too was interesting. I enjoyed seeing how it plays out at the military academy Nevare attends. The King’s Cavalla Academy is basically a microcosm of the kingdom’s politics as the majority of boys there arrive steeped in their family’s beliefs. Because the old nobles are losing influence in government to the new nobles (second sons granted land due to military performance), there’s much classist prejudice against the new nobles as the old nobles seek ways to hold on to their dwindling power. So despite the promises of the academy, with which Nevare’s father pumped his expectations, Nevare instead endures prejudice and harsh bullying from those seeking to outcast the new nobles and ensure that such soldier sons do not gain the king’s favor, as their fathers did.
So far, these characters stand out the most to me: Nevare (because he’s the protagonist/narrator), Spink (Nev’s bestie), Epiny (Nev’s cousin), and Gord (another friend).
Like Fitz, Nev grew on me. I don’t like him, but I think he’s interesting because I’m learning about this world through him. In that way, I like that he’s so naïve because I’m as amazed about certain things as he is (like the festival he attended… I forgot what it’s called… Dark Night Festival?). I like seeing how his experiences and the people he meets slowly causes him to change his beliefs and opinions about certain things, especially women. This society runs on very toxic patriarchy that’s advanced by its religion.
Spink I like because a) love his name and think it’s a great name for a cat and b) I wonder what will happen to him and what kind of man he will become because of how his body was affected by the mysterious illness.
Epiny is my favorite character so far. I love that she pushes against the boundaries set against her because of her gender. Also, I like that she causes Nev to rethink his problematic opinions about women. I also wonder what will become of her — and Nev — because of their powerful link to the spiritual world.
Gord is also interesting because his outlook on the world is a bit different from the boys at academy. In this book, he endures much bullying (being the son of a new noble) and fatshaming. Considering how many people died from the illness and the new management at the academy, the bullying will most likely die down, but I wonder if the fatshaming will continue. The religion in this world considers people who are fat as negligent in caring for their body, which is why many of the boys believe Gord unfit to be a soldier.
Magic & Religion
The magic in this seems subtle. So far, it’s spiritually based and touches on the occult, which makes me very excited because it seems that the magic might clash with the religion at some point, and I wonder in what ways that will happen.
I also wonder if it’s only the Plainspeople who have extraordinary abilities that affect the physical world: working wind magic and causing things to bind (which the Gernians adapted), etc. So far, the Gernians do not seem to have similar abilities but might have spiritual ones, like Epiny’s ability to tap into the spiritual plane. I also find it very interesting that iron cripples the effectiveness of the Plainspeople’s magic. This reminds me of fairies, since in some stories iron prevents fairies from working their magic.
I’d like to learn more about the religion as well. So far, it is only used to set order to the world — being very patriarchal, the men, especially fathers, are in charge and women are seen as possessions/accessories — and to give the Gernians another bullshit reason for colonizing the Plainspeople. But it seems that the Gernians did not always believe in one god and their society wasn’t always dictated in the way their current religion organizes it. I wonder where the Gernians are really from and from what did their religion grown out of. (Lots of wonderings/questions that I’m pretty sure won’t all be answered.)
Other thoughts and some critique
I’m just very eager to see what happens next. When Dewara called on Nev to go on the spirit quest to help out the Kidona people, I assumed this would be one of those “white savior” stories, which nettled me. But the way that quest turned out was unexpected. I like that Nev acknowledges that such a quest was not meant for him and felt ashamed for partaking in it because he didn’t understand the significance of the obstacles he encountered.
The major faceoff with the tree woman toward the end was both expected and unexpected. I knew that would have to happen eventually, but I didn’t expect it to happen so soon. Also, it made me wonder who the “bad guy” is. In that situation, the tree woman is Nev’s opponent, but I don’t think she’s bad. I actually admired her for doing what she can to protect her people. Nev was naively drawn into the conflict, so I guess the kingdom, maybe the king, is the “bad guy”?
As I mentioned above, I like Nev because we learn about the world through him, but he doesn’t really stand out otherwise. Things happen to him and he reacts, but he hardly ever takes the initiative to do anything. (That’s why his father sent him with Dewara — to force him to take the initiative to do his own thing.) I hope that changes.
Lol! I got carried away with that review, but I really like the story. It’s a favorite, and I would recommend it.
Buy | Borrow | Bypass
Quotes from the book:
“If a man couldn’t figure out how to take care of himself, then let him get himself killed and get out of the way before he brought down his whole regiment.”
Reminds me of a quote I love Sandor “the Dog” Clegane says in A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin: “If you can’t protect yourself, die and get out of the way of those who can.” I don’t agree with such sentiments, but such quotes are from grim characters and tend to capture how they navigate/respond to their world. The one above is from Hobb’s book is said by Sergeant Duril in a dream Nev had while being “tutored” by Dewara.
Currently reading the second book… 😩 I don’t think I’ll like it as much as this one.