With the conclusion of the Tawny Man trilogy (Fool’s Fate), Robin Hobb has decided to move on, at least temporarily, to another world she's created. Shaman’s Crossing is the first book in the "Soldier Son" trilogy, but it is quite self-contained. In fact, if the front cover didn't mention the trilogy, I would never have known (though I probably could have guessed, considering everybody's writing trilogies these days). I do like the fact that it is a story in itself and fairly complete with no dangling ends. Unfortunately, it is also incredibly slow.
In Hobb's new world, the first son of a noble inherits the title and property of the lord. The second son of a noble is destined to be a soldier. Recently, the king has raised certain soldiers who acquitted themselves well in the previous wars versus the Plainsmen to a "new" series of lordships, which has created a great deal of class tension between the originals and the new. Navare is the second son of one of the new nobles, and he can't wait to grow up, go to the military academy and become an officer. His entire childhood has been geared to that destiny, and he can't think of anything else that he could be. But when he gets there, all is not what it seems. A strange encounter as he was growing up seems to be affecting his dreams now, and his very odd cousin, Epiny, sees another aura around him that doesn't appear to be his own. Will his hard times at the academy grow into murder? Or worse? And what of the magic that appears to be affecting his very soul? Navare's first year at the academy may be his last.
Hobb has set up an interesting world with conflicting nobilities, a history of warfare and an honor system that ties everything together. Everything in Navare's childhood is geared to teach him necessary lessons and prepare him for life as an officer, yet one of these events may completely turn him away from the academy. The pull between the magic that Navare doesn't understand and his determination to do what the Good God has laid out for him is striking. The story is told in first person from Navare's point of view, so we see this struggle quite clearly. At times, Navare gets annoyingly archaic in his attitudes and he sounds too much like a prig, but this is all part of his growing-up process.
Characterization has always been Hobb's strong suit, and Shaman’s Crossing is no exception. Though some of Navare's fellow cadets tend to blur together, none of them are important to the plot, and the important ones are easily remembered. When Navare gets in the middle of a quiet power struggle between two of the other cadets, it is very immediate because of his viewpoint. Even the antagonists are clearly defined; while we never see anything from their side, we can usually tell what is going on behind their actions.
One caution (I wouldn't call it a fault), if you are used to books with either short chapters or easy stopping places where you can put the book on your bedside table and go to sleep: there is none of that here. The chapters are usually at least 20 pages long and run in one continuous narrative. If you don't like stopping in the middle of the action, choose your reading times wisely.
Shaman’s Crossing’s slow pace is its one fault. If the story wasn't self-contained, I would say that it was all set up (and it may still be for the rest of the series, for all we know). We get a lot of detail about Navare's childhood, with the initial chapters only jumping a few years each. Several encounters are important to what happens later, but there are others that appear to be just character-building or establishing the setting. The first chapter is a perfect example: Navare meets a Scout and his daughter (the Scout married a Plainswoman, so the daughter has some magic). Scouts aren't looked upon well, and this Scout is no exception. An altercation occurs, and Navare feels some kind of attachment to this girl. I'm sure this sets up something in subsequent books (if it doesn't, I'll be extremely annoyed), but it doesn't do much for this story other than establish part of the world and give the reader a little action to start off with. This is even more important because there isn't much action after this point.
If you are already a Robin Hobb fan, you will most likely enjoy Shaman’s Crossing, for the characterization if nothing else. If you're not already a fan, don't start here. Read one of the "Assassin" books or even the "Liveship Traders" first. If you don't, it is very possible you will get bogged down here and never want to try Hobb again. Once you have some grounding in her writing style, Shaman’s Crossing will be worth picking up again.