The Tainted City is the second book in The Shattered Sigil trilogy by Courtney Schafer. This novel follows The Whitefire Crossing, which was Schafer’s debut novel, and the third book in the series will be entitled The Labyrinth of Flame (release date forthcoming).
Since this is the second book in a series, there will be spoilers for the first book in the series. If you have not read the first book, you may want to read this review of The Whitefire Crossing instead. I’d just like to add that I think The Tainted City is one of the most enjoyable, well-executed novels I’ve read this year. After reading it, the third book in the trilogy has moved to the list of forthcoming books I am most excited about.
Also, later tomorrow I will be posting an interview with Courtney Schafer that I’m very excited about!
The Alathians are holding both Dev and Kiran as prisoners. Dev is forced to haul coal, but he’s really there as incentive to make sure Kiran performs his assigned task to the best of his ability – discovering fellow blood mage Simon Levanian’s methods for getting past Alathia’s strong border wards.
As the days go by, Dev becomes increasingly concerned about finding a way to escape Alathia and return home to Ninavel. When his friend Sethan was dying, he’d asked Dev to take care of his daughter Melly. Melly is Tainted, meaning she has magical gifts that will fade away completely – and very soon as Melly is very close to the age when this happens. Once her abilities are gone, she’ll be useless to her handler, Red Dal. As a former Tainter who worked for Red Dal, Dev is all too aware that he’ll have no problem selling Melly to the highest bidder. He takes his promise to keep her safe very seriously and is desperate both to return home to figure out a way to keep Melly from a horrible fate.
The day Dev begins to put his escape plan into motion, it’s interrupted by an earth tremor that nearly kills him. Both Dev and Kiran automatically assume the quake is Ruslan, the blood mage Kiran was running from, attempting to break through Alathia’s wards himself to bring his runaway apprentice home. However, they are informed that the Alathians received news from Ninavel indicating that the tremor appears to be related to a magical occurrence there. Someone appears to be trying to tamper with the water supply that is necessary for the survival of those living in the desert, and mages have been killed as a result. Since Ninavel’s problems are also causing problems with Alathia’s precious wards, a small group of Alathians decide to investigate, and they decide to bring Kiran for his knowledge of blood magic and Dev for his knowledge of the streets. Understandingly, Kiran fears leaving Alathia’s wards before they deteriorate since it will place him closer to Ruslan. The Alathians insist they can keep Kiran safe from the older blood mage, but can they actually keep their promise – and find the killer – before it is too late for both Ninavel and Alathia?
While I enjoyed The Whitefire Crossing and thought it was a very good debut novel, I wanted more from it. It had some great characters, and both Ninavel and Alathia were intriguing with their opposing strategies to handling those who had magicial ability, but I felt like I was just getting a small glimpse of the edge of the big picture. There was incredible potential for some deeper exploration of the characters and world, and I had a feeling that the second book may cover more of that territory once it had been introduced in the first book. I wasn’t quite prepared for just how much I ended up loving The Tainted City, though. It has everything I like to see in a secondary world fantasy – a fascinating, well-built, and consistent world; excellent, authentic characters who are put to the test; an exciting story that kept me on the edge of my seat; and magic that is not easy and often requires making tough choices. It’s a very thoughtfully written fantasy book, but not in a way that’s trying too hard or takes away from the story being told. It’s thoughtful in how seamless the characterization and world-building are, and the way good and bad are balanced in societies and characters.
One example of this balance are the societies created in Ninavel and Alathia. Both are faced with powerful people who can use magic, but each chose to handle mages in very different ways. In Ninavel, mages are given free reign and quite often have too much power. Yet the people of Ninavel have choice and freedom, which is restricted in Alathia where magic is very heavily regulated. Those with magical ability are forced into their country’s service and have to follow a strict set of rules. With completely opposing viewpoints like this, it could be all too easy to portray one as being better than the other, especially when both point of view characters are from Ninavel. Dev is very opposed to a lot of the Alathian ways, but even so both societies seemed to have both their advantages and their problems. Alathia did seem more proper since Ninavel’s ways allowed people to be more self-serving, but it’s also very apparent that Alathia does pay a price for its restrictions.
Similarly, the characters are well-rounded without falling firmly into the category of “black” or “white.” Some were darker than others, and they all had to face difficult choices that showed what they valued and where their priorities lay – Dev had to figure out just what he’d sacrifice to keep his promise to save Melly, and Kiran had to decide just how far he was willing to go to be a blood mage. Those other than the two main characters also had to wrestle with various choices, and I really appreciated that no matter what a character did or how much I might disagree with it, I always understood WHY he or she acted that way. Each character had experiences that had shaped them and put their experiences in context; each did what made sense to him or her and there were no flat characters. I’d be quite happy to read a story about any one of them because each of them did have their own backstory, goals, and motivations that made them well-fleshed out characters.
In particular, I loved the portrayal of Ruslan, the ruthless blood mage who taught Kiran. He is definitely leaning toward the “evil” side of the good/evil spectrum, but he manages to be villainous without falling into the trap of becoming the purely black-hearted, cardboard villain whose every act and thought is dedicated to evil. Ruslan seems to genuinely care for those he considers a part of his family, including Kiran. As much as I despised his methods and what he did to Kiran, I also got the impression that he really did care about the well-being of his apprentice and thought he was doing what was best for him.
Likewise, there is an argument to be made for many of his actions and some of the logic used to sway Kiran to the side of not fearing blood magic wasn’t completely illogical. There were times when it was about survival and doing what was necessary. That’s not to say Ruslan never seems to take joy out of acts that do seem rather evil, because he does. Yet not all these acts are incomprehensible given the circumstances and the urgency behind finding the killer he’s seeking. In addition, Kiran’s perspective gives a glimpse of just how good blood magic feels, and knowing that Kiran’s a decent person who doesn’t wish to harm anyone made me wonder – what did Ruslan used to be like and what set him on this path? It’s obvious that he too could have once been a decent person who ended up on this slippery slope, and I just love the complexity of Ruslan as a darker character. (I am kind of hoping for a story about his past at some point now.)
As characters, Dev and Kiran are both also wonderful to read about, and I think it’s a good choice to have Dev carry a lot of the story. While I do enjoy reading about Kiran’s tribulations and felt I got a better idea of just who he is in this book, Dev’s first person narration is delightful and full of personality. Kiran can be a bit naive, but Dev is a man of the streets and clever besides. He gets how it works and has a cynical eye, yet he also manages to remain reasonably jaded instead of paranoid and jaded. Lots of bad things happen to both characters over the course of this novel, and they are put to the test.
In fact, the entire second half of this book was fast-paced, urgent, and kept me on the edge of my seat. If I had one complaint, it’s that there were some parts in the first half that were a little slow, but it really wasn’t a bad sort of slow that was boring. It just seemed to take awhile to really get to the heart of the story, but once it did things moved at a rapid pace and it was a fast ride full of twists and turns right until the end.
There is no middle book syndrome with The Tainted City, and I thought it was superior to The Whitefire Crossing in every way even though the first book was enjoyable. It contained deeper exploration of the world and characters, and it excelled on all levels – crisp prose, strong storytelling, intriguing and well-developed characters, a good narrative voice, and excellent world-building with logical consistency throughout. Quite simply, I loved The Tainted City, highly recommend it, and cannot wait for the sequel.
My Rating: 9/10
Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from a publicist/the publisher.
Read an Excerpt from The Tainted City:
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