Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Dev is a desperate man. After narrowly surviving a smuggling job gone wrong, he’s now a prisoner of the Alathian Council, held hostage to ensure his friend Kiran — former apprentice to one of the most ruthless mages alive — does their bidding.
But Kiran isn’t Dev’s only concern. Back in his home city of Ninavel, the child he once swore to protect faces a terrible fate if he can’t reach her in time, and the days are fast slipping away. So when the Council offers Dev freedom in exchange for his and Kiran’s assistance in a clandestine mission to Ninavel, he can’t refuse, no matter how much he distrusts their motives.
Once in Ninavel the mission proves more treacherous than even Dev could have imagined. Betrayed by allies, forced to aid their enemies, he and Kiran must confront the darkest truths of their pasts if they hope to save those they love and survive their return to the Tainted City.
Thoughts: The second book in the Shattered Sigil series and the sequel to The Whitefire Crossing, The Tainted City is exactly what I’d come to expect from Schafer after reading her first book. That is to say, pure gold. Schafer took what I loved so much previously and expanded on it, adding greater depth to the characters and the world in which they live.
Where part of the tension in the first novel came from the characters being on the move, scaling mountains and trying to evade blood mages and danger at every turn, The Tainted City takes place mostly back in Ninavel, with characters staying in one place. The tension and excitement of the plot is not reduced for this, however, as several plots converge to keep everyone on their toes. A murder mystery, unstable magic, demons, and continuations of the plot threads attached to both Dev and Kiran provide enough action to keep any reader happy. World-building fans will be happy with the way that Schafer greatly expands on the culture and setting of Ninavel, sheds light on life there for all levels of the social ladder. Those who enjoy seeing a great amount of character development will likewise be pleased at the realism and complexity shown not just in the main characters but also the supporting cast.
It’s hard for me to tell whether Schafer’s strength is greatest in her characters or her ability to set up a series of twisting plot arcs that all tie together in the end. I think maybe it’s a mix of both, with each element adding to the other. Her characters are wonderfully believable, unique and flawed and with their own motivations for their actions, whether they be good or bad. it’s easy to fall into Dev’s narrative with his first-person viewpoint, and equally easy to follow Kiran’s third-person perspective, both with their own voices and overtones. This is especially commendable after Kiran’s memories are lost; for all that Kiran cannot remember the events of the previous novel and the events that caused him to flee Ruslan in the first place, he still stays himself. Even when he rejoins Ruslan, he is still the same Kiran that he used to be. It would have been so very easy to fall into the trap of changing his essential personality here, to have him harden or become cruel, but that wasn’t the way of it, and that was a blessing to see.
And I have to take a moment to comment on the interplay between Dev and Kiran. Schafer admitted that multiple people have asked if those two are going to pair up in the end (I admit, I’m more than half hoping for that myself!), and it’s easy to see why. Even when Kiran has lost his memories and is no longer working with Dev and the others with him, they still retain a connection to each other. Dev struggles with how his priorities with freeing Melly from slavery will sometimes conflict with his desire to free Kiran from Ruslan. Kiran can’t remember getting to know Dev at all and yet still seems drawn to him, trusting of him even when he has no conscious reason to be. Those two work so very well together that it’s hard not to comment on it, and it’s rare for me to find that kind of partnership in fiction. There are plenty of partnerships, certainly, but few that I’ve found in other books have the same deep level of connection and comfort that these two seem to have, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how their relationship (and I mean that non-romantically) develops down the road.
The book ends on a frustrating cliff-hanger, with a great deal being revealed about Kiran’s forgotten past. Normally I dislike obvious cliffhangers, don’t like people giving me an incomplete story to try to hook me into the next installment. But as much as a good deal is left unsaid and unresolved, the story in The Tained City nevertheless still felt complete. It obviously couldn’t have been a standalone novel, but the bulk of the plot was wrapped up nicely and plot threads were leading rather than left dangling. Schafer’s writing style, clear imagery, and engaging characters are what makes this sort of ending possible without leaving me annoyed at having to wait. I’m not sure if I’m saying this clearly enough, but to me there’s a big difference between handing me a piece of a larger story that just stops dead and leaves much unresolved and only hinted at, and handing me what’s a good story in its own right that also happens to be a piece of a larger story. The Tainted City does leave some things merely hinted at, but it’s done in a way that builds excitement rather than frustration.
To me, the sign of a great novel or a great series is how much I talk about it. My roommate and I have found a few series that we can talk at length about. Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books (and you all know how I feel about them). N K Jemisin’s Inheritence Trilogy. And now the Shattered Sigil books. Honestly, we’ve spent hours discussing things that take place here, wondering what characters would do in certain situations, discussing how Ruslan should die in a fire…
I could heap praise upon this book and series for hours, but ultimately, the best way to discover it is to read it for yourself. If you want a return to classic fantasy adventure, loaded up with complex characters and an amazing story, then do yourself a favour and get this book. It will keep you up late into the night, and you’ll be relishing every minute of sleep you lose to it.
(Book received from the author/publisher for review.)