The Labyrinth of Flame, by Courtney Schafer

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Author’s website
Publication date – December 1, 2015

Summary: Dev’s never been a man afraid of a challenge. Not only has he kept his vow to his dead mentor, rescuing a child in the face of impossible odds, but he’s freed his mage friend Kiran from both the sadistic master who seeks to enslave him and the foreign Council that wants to kill him.

But Kiran’s master Ruslan is planning a brutal revenge, one that will raze an entire country to blood and ashes. Kiran is the key to stopping Ruslan; yet Kiran is dying by inches, victim of the Alathian Council’s attempt to chain him. Worse yet, Dev and Kiran have drawn the attention of demons from the darkest of ancient legends. Demons whose power Dev knows is all too real, and that he has every reason to fear.

A fear that grows, as he and Kiran struggle to outmaneuver Ruslan and uncover the secrets locked in Kiran’s forgotten childhood. For the demons are playing their own deadly game – and the price of survival may be too terrible to bear.

Review: If you’ve followed my reviews or see me around on Twitter or Facebook, you’ve probably heard me rave about the two previous books in the Shattered Sigil series, The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City. I adored them. So very much. They inspired dozens of conversations with friends, speculation about how the series would end, and yes, plenty of discussions about shipping certain characters, too (you know the ones I’m talking about). It got me excited in the way few other series have managed to do in recent years, and I had amazingly high hopes for The Labyrinth of Flame.

And despite how high my hopes were, Schafer still managed to surpass them.

The book starts shortly after where The Tainted City left off, with Dev and Kiran making their way to Prosul Akheba, trying to keep a low profile so that neither Ruslan nor demons find them. Kiran is still missing the memories burned away by Ruslan, is reliant on a dwindling supply of a drug, and must face the fact that some part of him is undeniably connected to the demons that dog their footsteps. As if dodging Ruslan and demons wasn’t enough, there’s a tribe of Shaikar-worshippers chasing them, and the solution to all of their problems might be buried in memories Kiran didn’t even suspect he held.

It’s a layered plot of chaos and desperation, and pretty much as of about 1/3 of the way through, the pace doesn’t let up for a second. “One more chapter” syndrome hits hard. There are new reveals and new dangers around every turn, the plot gets even more full of twists and complications, and yet it never once feels like things are over the top, or like the author is trying to one-up anything previously done. The story all flows naturally, it all makes sense, and it isn’t filled with big impressive events just for the sake of big impressive events. It’s beautifully done, and I enjoyed just how much I was on the edge of my seat for most of the reading.

It is, however, really difficult to talk about the plot of the book because so much happens, so many things change, that it’s tough to give context without also giving spoilers. I could talk about how Kiran develops his confidence and his power, or how Dev might finally have learned to stop living in a convoluted web of deceit caused by making too many promises to too many people, but to say more than that would risk spoiling some major plot twists, or else remaining pointlessly vague. I often find that some of the best books are the hardest to review; they’re better read than read about.

There are definitely things that I can talk about without introducing too many spoilers. I love, for instance, how Melly got a decent-sized role in The Labyrinth of Flame, where in previous books she got a couple of scenes and largely existed as Dev’s motivation. Here, she finds strength and plays an active part of the story, not content to be a tag-along or to be shunted to the side because of her age. I love the parallels between Kiran and Ruslan, and how they both take the “I’m doing this for your own good” path even as they approach from opposite ends. I love seeing how Ruslan and Lizaveta are more than just generic villains; they always were, even in previous books, but you get to see more of their past here and more of how they think and what influences them, and it’s a wonderful piece of insight into how twisted by grief and power a person can become.

I love the way the book challenges cultural norms all over the place, but particularly I like how it does this with romance and relationships. A presentation of people who don’t typically follow a pattern of only choosing one partner at a time but instead are rather polyamourous (and more fluid in their associated sexuality, at least sometimes, and depending on the person) is wonderful to see in fiction, not because I believe that’s the only proper way to have a healthy relationship, but because it breaks molds and shows that there are more ways to have a healthy relationship than just monogamy. I love to see this stuff explored, and I love that Schafer explored it with respect and compassion.

The same thing can be said for sexuality, in that there’s a surprisingly amount of positive bisexual representation in this book. It’s not something you see that often, to be truthful; usually characters that break sexual molds are almost always gay, and bisexuality doesn’t get brought up that often. But here you not only have a main character who’s perfectly okay with romance and sex with either gender, but multiple main characters who feel that way. And it’s presented as absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. No surprise, no comments of, “I didn’t know you felt that way,” no revelation, nothing. Just acceptance of that’s how some people are, and that’s how some characters themselves are, and what’s so weird about that?

Which brings me to the book’s ending, and I have to say this: the ending of The Labyrinth of Flame is quite possibly the most satisfying ending to a series I’ve ever read. It ties up everything wonderfully, leaves room for the future, and left me with flailing around like an idiot over what happens to the people I ship. Seriously, I don’t think there’s any possible better way for this book and this series to have ended. It closed on a high note, filled with hope and optimism even for difficult tasks ahead, and I’m going to be honest with you all — I actually just went and reread the last chapter again while writing this, because I love the ending that much. It left me with the first book hangover I’ve ever experienced, and despite having just reread the first two books in the series in preparation for reading this one, all I wanted to do when it was over was pick up The Whitefire Crossing and start over, so that I didn’t have to leave the world and characters behind.

Fantasy just doesn’t get much better than this!

You are my anchor stone; abandoning you would mean ripping out the best part of myself.

November Wrap-Up

See, I told you there’d still be updates to this place.

I’ve decided that the best way to do this is regular end-of-the-month posts with a list of what I’ve read during the past month, with appropriate mini-reviews of links to full reviews if what I’ve read has been a reread (or if I’ve written a full review because what I read was so amazing that I couldn’t not talk about it).

But first…

Other Stuff

So what have I been doing with my life since I stopped focusing so much on book reviews? Well, other than still reading some great books, I’ve been trying to put a little more focus on self-care, and allow myself time to do other relaxing things (like playing video games, for instance, or making things) without feeling guilty for doing so, like I was wasting time that could better be used for reading new books and writing reviews about them. So there’s that.

But my main purpose for cutting so far back on reviews was writing, and that’s been a big focus this past month. November is NaNoWriMo, and the challenge for me in recent years hasn’t been getting the wordcount (I wrote NaNo’s 50,000 words in 12 days once), but in sticking to a story and finishing something.

I…didn’t do either of those things this past month. I met the wordcount goal, but only through working on two different projects, both of which are half-finished.

But the second project I worked on was much more enjoyable than the first (which felt stale and boring very quickly), and come December I want to do the same challenge again. 50,000 words in a month. With luck, I ought to be able to get the rest of Project 2’s story out, and then spend some time in the editing phase, of things, trying to make it better and possibly maybe hopefully be of publishable quality in the end.

So that’s what November has been like for me. Now onto…

The Books

The Whitefire Crossing, by Courtney Schafer
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: Dev is a smuggler with the perfect cover. He”s in high demand as a guide for the caravans that carry legitimate goods from the city of Ninavel into the country of Alathia. The route through the Whitefire Mountains is treacherous, and Dev is one of the few climbers who knows how to cross them safely. With his skill and connections, it’s easy enough to slip contraband charms from Ninavel – where any magic is fair game, no matter how dark – into Alathia, where most magic is outlawed.

But smuggling a few charms is one thing; smuggling a person through the warded Alathian border is near suicidal. Having made a promise to a dying friend, Dev is forced to take on a singularly dangerous cargo: Kiran. A young apprentice on the run from one of the most powerful mages in Ninavel, Kiran is desperate enough to pay a fortune to sneak into a country where discovery means certain execution – and he”ll do whatever it takes to prevent Dev from finding out the terrible truth behind his getaway.

Yet the young mage is not the only one harboring a deadly secret. Caught up in a web of subterfuge and dark magic, Dev and Kiran must find a way to trust each other – or face not only their own destruction, but that of the entire city of Ninavel.

Review: Reread; full review here.

The Tainted City, by Courtney Schafer
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: 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.

Review: Reread; full review here.

The Labyrinth of Flame, by Courtney Schafer
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: Dev’s never been a man afraid of a challenge. Not only has he kept his vow to his dead mentor, rescuing a child in the face of impossible odds, but he’s freed his mage friend Kiran from both the sadistic master who seeks to enslave him and the foreign Council that wants to kill him.

But Kiran’s master Ruslan is planning a brutal revenge, one that will raze an entire country to blood and ashes. Kiran is the key to stopping Ruslan; yet Kiran is dying by inches, victim of the Alathian Council’s attempt to chain him. Worse yet, Dev and Kiran have drawn the attention of demons from the darkest of ancient legends. Demons whose power Dev knows is all too real, and that he has every reason to fear.

A fear that grows, as he and Kiran struggle to outmaneuver Ruslan and uncover the secrets locked in Kiran’s forgotten childhood. For the demons are playing their own deadly game–and the price of survival may be too terrible to bear.

Review: Full review to come. But in a nutshell, this is one of the best series I’ve read, with the most satisfying ending that I’ve encountered in a very long time, and also it holds the honour of being the first book to actually give me a book hangover. I don’t usually get those. This book gave me one. It was freaking amazing!

Arrows of the Queen, by Mercedes Lackey
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: A KINGDOM IMPERILED!

Chosen by the Companion Rolan, a mystical horse-like being with powers beyond imagining, Talia, once a run-away, has now become a trainee Herald, destined to become one of the Queen’s own elite guard. For Talia has certain awakening talents of the mind that only a Companion like Rolan can truly sense.

But as Talia struggles to master her unique abilities, time is running out. For conspiracy is brewing in Valdemar, a deadly treason which could destroy Queen and kingdom. Opposed by unknown enemies capable of both diabolical magic and treacherous assassination, the Queen must turn to Talia and the Heralds for aid in protecting the realm and insuring the future of the Queen’s heir, a child already in danger of becoming bespelled by the Queen’s own foes!

Review: Reread; full review here.

The Forbidden Library, by Django Wexler
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: Alice always thought fairy tales had happy endings. That–along with everything else–changed the day she met her first fairy

When Alice’s father goes down in a shipwreck, she is sent to live with her uncle Geryon–an uncle she’s never heard of and knows nothing about. He lives in an enormous manor with a massive library that is off-limits to Alice. But then she meets a talking cat. And even for a rule-follower, when a talking cat sneaks you into a forbidden library and introduces you to an arrogant boy who dares you to open a book, it’s hard to resist. Especially if you’re a reader to begin with. Soon Alice finds herself INSIDE the book, and the only way out is to defeat the creature imprisoned within.

It seems her uncle is more than he says he is. But then so is Alice.

Review: I don’t often read much mid-grade fiction, but Django Wexler really caught my attention with this book involving libraries, cats, and mystery. It follows the story of Alice, who has recently lost her father to a mysterious accident and now lives with her uncle, a strange and private old man who seems somewhat obsessed with books. Alice gets the opportunity to dig deeper into her father’s death and finds herself drawn into books and worlds that she never imagined, trying to stay alive while she unravels the multilayered mystery that keeps unfolding.

It has much of the sensible fantastical charm of Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series, which I love, only with less of a fairy tale feel about it. Most of this comes from Ashes the cat, which, as a cat owner, fits so perfectly. The story moves along quickly, has good humour, and happily contains plenty of vocab-building for the age-range the book is intended for, which is something I love seeing in fiction targeted to younger people. I can easily imagine myself finding this when I was 10 or 11 and just devouring it, and even as an adult I found the mystery compelling and the pacing perfect to draw me along.

Alice is a great character, too, being neither the prim little girl who is the epitome of every early 1900s manners guide, nor the rebellious-for-the-sake-of-rebellion high-spirited troublemaker that often seems to be the counterpart to the former. She follows the rules and does what she’s told, but when push comes to shove she’ll make her own decisions and won’t just obey because someone older tells her what to do. I do dislike the whole, “She could be the most powerful Reader ever” bit, largely because “the most powerful anything ever” trope is quite stale at this point (can’t we just have someone who’s decently talented without needing to go over the top with it?), but it does help some that she doesn’t achieve things effortlessly, she often makes mistakes, and some things are learning experiences without having some great moral lesson attached to them.

So in a nutshell, this is a mid-grade historical fantasy series that’s fun, has an interesting plot, and the commentary on books makes me grin. Definitely a series I want to read the rest of, if I get the chance.

(Received in exchange for an honest review.)

Guest post: “Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, or, The Dangers of Expectations,” by Courtney Schafer

Today’s guest post was kindly written by the very awesome Courtney Schafer, author of The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City.


tamlin  I’ve always been fascinated by how stories are a dialogue between author and reader. The words on the page never change, and yet the story they tell is different for every person who reads it, refracted through the lens of our individual experiences and expectations. This is why I find re-reading so valuable; the best stories change as we do, revealing deeper layers as we gain the insight to see them.

I’ve never had a better example of this than Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin. When I first read the book, I didn’t like it much. Based on the back-of-the-book blurb and the others of Dean’s novels that I’d read, I was expecting something like Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock– the Tam Lin ballad transposed to a modern setting, but retaining plenty of obvious fantasy elements. Perhaps without Jones’s wild imagination and wry humor, but containing the wistful, haunting quality I’d loved in Dean’s The Dubious Hills and her Secret Country trilogy.

Instead, I found myself reading what appeared to be a prosaic, meandering, overly detailed account of a young woman’s experience majoring in English at a small liberal arts college in the 70s. Yeah, her name was Janet like in the ballad, but heck, she wasn’t even interested in Thomas character, let alone struggling to save him from a dire fate. And where was the fantasy? The faerie queen, the tithe to hell, the magic?

I sped through the story, increasingly frustrated, wondering when the hell anything would happen. Eventually the familiar elements of the ballad appeared, but not until the very end. I felt cheated. Here I was expecting a full-on fantasy tale, and instead I got what appeared to be a mainstream story with a tiny bit of fantasy tacked onto the end in rushed, slapdash fashion. I put the book back on the shelf in disgust and didn’t look at it again for several years.

Yet one day something – I don’t recall what – inspired me to pick up Tam Lin again. To my complete surprise, the second time through was an utterly different experience. The fantasy I’d bemoaned the lack of, the magic? It was right there! All the way from the beginning, woven so cleverly into the story that I’d totally missed it the first time around. Seemingly random conversations were not at all random, but carried deeper, gutwrenching levels of meaning. And this time the ending felt inevitable and natural, not forced. I felt as if I’d been staring at one of those clever optical illusions like the Rubin vase drawing, and finally seen the second image, hiding in plain sight.

I was gobsmacked. And head over heels in love with the book. A love that continues to this day. I’ve seen people say that you need to be an English or Classics major to like the book, as Dean peppers the story with all kinds of references to classical literature and plays. I don’t find that at all true. I myself majored in electrical engineering at a school solely devoted to science and technology (Caltech), where we treated most of our humanities classes as necessary evils to be suffered. My ignorance of classical literature didn’t stop me from enjoying the novel – at least, not once my eyes were opened to the subtleties of Dean’s storytelling. After reading the book a few times, I did end up finding and reading some of the plays and books that Janet and her friends talk about, so I could more fully understand the references and discussions. But I didn’t need to do that to like the book.

I have also seen people say the book is a depiction of college as an enchanted garden, and that is much closer to the truth. While my own experiences at college were not much like Janet’s – my friends and I were far more likely to be arguing about quantum physics theory than making quips based on Shakespeare’s plays – I, too, reveled in the freedom I first experienced there, and the joy of diving into the study of subjects I was passionately interested in. For those who didn’t have a similar experience, I can imagine that the book may not resonate so well.

But oh, if it does…not only is Dean’s Tam Lin a wonderful novel in its own right, it can be part of a fascinating comparative reading exercise. Stories aren’t only refracted through readers, but the authors who tell them. If you ever wanted to see an unequivocal demonstration of “it’s not the plot, it’s the execution,” then try reading Dean’s Tam Lin, and then three other retellings of the Tam Lin ballad: Fire and Hemlock (Diana Wynne Jones), The Perilous Gard (Elizabeth Marie Pope), and Red Shift (Alan Garner). Excellent books all, yet completely, utterly different in their approach to the same source material. For extra fun, try reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which in many ways resembles Dean’s Tam Lin reflected through a far darker and more tragic mirror. (I read on someone’s blog a long time ago that Tartt’s The Secret History can be thought of as the memoir of someone trapped in Medeous’s court. I’d agree.)

The Tainted City, by Courtney Schafer

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website
Publication date – September 25, 2012

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.)

Free Ebook – The Whitefire Crossing, by Courtney Schafer

  If you haven’t read Courtney Schafer’s The Whitefire Crossing (my review here), then you’re missing out. And at the moment, you’ve got no reason to miss out, because for a limited time, the ebook version is available on Amazon.com for free! Seriously, don’t miss your chance to get your hand on this, and the newly-released sequel (The Tainted City) while you can! It’s a must-have series for fantasy fans.