Shaman’s Crossing by Robin Hobb

Synopsis:
A young man’s military training is threatened by his seeming possession by a creature in thrall to an evil forest goddess.

Review:
Shaman’s Crossing is the first book in Robin Hobb’s newest trilogy, Soldier Son, and I ate it up with a spoon, thanks to a very long train ride to Canada. The world of Soldier Son takes place in a frontier-like environment much like the Old West at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, with Nevare, the main character, on his way to his training in the cavalry at a West Point-type officer’s academy. Nevare’s world is highly ordered, focused on both tradition and progress, and a magic-less rationalism. His father, also a soldier, decides that before heading off to school Nevare would benefit from training with a respected leader in one of the Plains tribes that the military is fighting against. Nevare ends up in the middle of the desert in what resembles a Native American spirit quest that unlocks the doors to another world–and to a goddess who wants the destruction of Nevare’s people.

Nevare’s first year at the Academy is fraught with hazing and violent clashes between the sons of the Old and New nobles, and his testing reveals to Nevare that he is neither naturally brave nor a born leader. His willful cousin Epiny, obsessed with spiritualism, divines that stolid Nevare has another aura that fights for dominance. Though Nevare wants to ignore her, he can’t deny that in his dreams he lives another life. As both story strands move towards a thrilling climax, Nevare experiences a coming-of-age that threatens to pull apart both his soul and the society he holds dear.

Hobb’s skill with world-building is superlative, and here she brings in military history, complex politics, and a deep-rooted religious structure that makes the story feel very, very realistic. It’s the (new) Battlestar Galactica-type of fantasy–the trappings of genre contain a story that touches upon themes and stories that go farther and deeper than most straight fiction. Her characters are fully three-dimensional, and she places them in situations of true, palpable risk. Above all that, she’s a terrific writer.

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