First of all, if any of you readers could enlighten me, how do you pronounce shaman? I've always pronounced it "shah-man", whereas my parents say it like "shay-man". Is there more then one pronounciation, or have I been wrong all this time? Don't worry - it's happened to me before, I used to pronounce doctrines "doc-treens" and not "doc-trins".
Anyhoo, this is Robin Hobb's newest novel. I'm a big fan of Robin Hobb - I have all of The Farseer Trilogy, The Tawny Man Trilogy, and The Liveship Traders Trilogy filling up my bookcase. I love her ideas and her characterization, so I was really looking forward to the first book of her new Soldier Son Trilogy, Shaman's Crossing.
Honestly, though, let me get this out right now: I was disappointed with this book. It was slow-moving, overburdened with more exposition than was necessary, a little obvious, and didn't really pick up until the very end. As well, for the first book in a trilogy, the ending was surprisingly pat, leaving very little open for following books. However, I did like the setting, which was a 18th-19th century vibe, a refreshing change in a fantasy market overflowing with books set in Middle Age European worlds.
Nevarre Burvelle is the soldier son of a soldier son. In his world, their religion dictates that man's destiny is determined by his birth-order - so the first son is the heir, the second is the soldier, the third the priest, and so on and so forth. All sons of a soldier become soldiers themselves, but Nevare and his siblings are spared that when their father, along with many other officers who distinguished themselves in battle, is elevated to the status of lord. Now a soldier son of a noble, Nevarre is permitted to attend the Academy when he becomes of age, and be trained as an officer.
Before he does so, however, his father sends him to be tutored by Plainsman, one of a supposedly barbaric native race that Nevare's people are struggling to "civilise", in order to help Nevarre "know his enemy". The teaching goes horribly wrong when the Plainsman sets him up to destroy a mysterious Tree Woman, and ends up claimed by her instead, but one had to read very far into the book to finally find out what that entails.
The majority of the book is Nevarre becoming accustomed to life at the Academy once he's old enough. Sadly, Nevarre is considered a "new noble", the son of an upstart commoner and King's lapdog, and finds himself facing prejudice and bigotry from the "old nobles", who feel their power over the country has been diluted by the King's sudden elevation of so many soldiers.
This is pretty much 75% of the book: Nevarre and his buddies having to deal with vicious hazing, unfair treatment, horrible living conditions, and irritating amounts of homework. Annoyances come and go, but nothing significant really happens until the very end, when everything comes out in a rush.
Nevarre is also a rather limp character. He longs to earn his father's approval (and his father, while firm, is not a miser in dispensing approval), but has little to no ambition, creativity, or foresight. It becomes increasingly clear throughout the book that the Tree Woman is exerting some bizarre, detached control over Nevarre, but he continues to deny, ignore, and eventually forget it and everything to do with magic. He's also a bit of a prig, especially when it comes to his abrasively irritating cousin Epiny, who believes that by acting like a spoiled child, she'll never have to be married off to live a life of female submission. I hate to say it, but I got the impression that Nevarre's as deaf, dumb, and blind as a post, with little drive with which to motivate his actions.
I think more time than was necessary was spent on endless exposition, description, and commentary describing life and politics at the Academy - I kept waiting for the exciting bits to start, but aside from a few weird dreams, it's all about the minor miracles and quibbles that make up Academy life. When the second book comes out, I think I'll check it out at the library first before shelling out for the hardback.