[shah-muhn, shey-, sham-uhn]
shaman, religious practitioner in various, generally small-scale societies who is believed to be able to diagnose, cure, and sometimes cause illness because of a special relationship with, or control over, spirits. Different forms of shamanism are found around the world; they are also known as medicine men and witch doctors. Shamanism is based on the belief that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits that affect the lives of the living. Shamans are not, however, organized within full-time ritual or spiritual associations, as are priests. Shamans enter into trances through such methods as autohypnosis, the ingestion of hallucinogens, fasting, and self-mortification, during which time they are said to be in contact with the spirit world. Shamanism requires specialized knowledge or abilities, which are often thought to be obtained through heredity or supernatural calling. Among the Siberian Chukchee, one may behave in ways that Western clinicians would characterize as psychotic, but which they interpret as possession by a spirit demanding that one assume the shamanic vocation. Among the South American Tapirapé, shamans are called in their dreams. In yet other societies, shamans choose their career: Native Americans of the Plains would seek a communion with spirits through a "vision quest," while South American Shuar, seeking the power to defend their family against enemies, apprentice themselves to accomplished shamans. Shamans often observe special fasts and taboos particular to their vocation. Oftentimes the shaman has, or acquires, one or more familiars, usually spirits in animal form, or (sometimes) of departed shamans. Shamans can manipulate these spirits to diagnose and cure victims of witchcraft. Some societies distinguish shamans who cure from sorcerers who harm; others believe that all shamans have both curative and deadly powers. The shaman is usually paid for his services, and generally enjoys great power and prestige in the community, but he may also be suspected of harming others, and may thus be feared. Most shamans are men, but there are societies in which women may also be shamans. In some societies, the male shaman denies his own sexual identity by assuming the dress and attributes of a woman; this practice is rare but has been found among the Chukchee. See Dyak, Araucanians, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute.

See M. Eliade, Shamanism (tr. 1964); M. J. Harner, ed., Hallucinogens and Shamanism (1973) and The Way of the Shaman (1980); M. Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man (1987).

Shaman's Crossing is a book by Robin Hobb, the first in her Soldier Son Trilogy. It is written in first-person narrative from the viewpoint of Nevare Burvelle and follows his life through his first year in the King's Cavalla Academy.

Plot summary

Young Nevare Burvelle (pronounced Nuh-vair) is the second son of a second son in the fantasy nation of Gernia (pronounced Jur-nee-uh). According to Gernian religious practice, firstborn noble sons are heir to the family fortunes, second sons bear swords as soldiers, and third sons are consecrated to the priesthood. Holy Writ specifies other roles as well for subsequent sons. Nevare will follow his father – newly made a lord by the King – into the Cavalla (cavalry); to the frontier and thence to an advantageous marriage to carry on the Burvelle name. It is a golden future, and Nevare looks forward to it with relish. From the age of eight, Nevare is schooled daily in math, physics, engineering, and of course combat and military strategy. With the help of Sergeant Duril, a man who once served under Nevare's father, he learns to live off the land and survive in the harsh plains environment.

For twenty years King Troven's cavalla have pushed the frontiers of Gernia out across the grasslands by building King's Road, Troven's vision of future trade with the east, and also subduing the fierce tribes of the plain on its way. Now they have driven the frontier as far as the Barrier Mountains, home to the enigmatic Speck people. The specks – a light sensitive, dapple-skinned, forest-dwelling folk – are said to retain vestiges of magic in a world which is becoming progressive and technologised. The 'civilised' peoples base their convictions on a rational philosophy founded on their belief in the good god, who displaced the older deities of their world. To them, the Specks are primeval savages, little better than beasts. Superstitions abound; it is said that they harbour strange diseases and worship trees. Sexual congress with them is regarded as both filthy and foolhardy, though not unheard of; the Speck plague, which has ravaged the frontier, has decimated entire regiments.

During Nevare's youth, his father hires a man named Dewara, a plainsman of the Kidona tribe and a former enemy of Lord Burvelle, to teach Nevare things he cannot learn from a friendly tutor. After a grueling set of lessons, Dewara offers Nevare the chance to "become a Kidona" by participating in a ritual and killing an enemy of the Kidona. During the ritual, Dewara places a dried poisonous toad in Nevare's mouth and Nevare experiences a vision. The vision involves Nevare crossing a strangely constructed series of bridges and culminates in a meeting with Tree Woman. Dewara urges Nevare to kill her, because she is the enemy. However, Nevare falls off the final bridge and only with Tree Woman's aid can he survive. He accepts her assistance and as payment, she claims him as her weapon to halt the destruction of her people.

Nevare awakens at his father's house, nearly dead from beating and exposure and missing a patch of hair and skin from his scalp.

Soon after his 18th birthday, Nevare heads to the King's Cavalla Academy to begin his formal training. His upbringing and tutors' lessons serve him well at the Academy, but his progress there is not as simple as he would wish. He experiences prejudice from the old aristocracy; as the son of a 'new noble' he is segregated into a patrol comprising other new nobles' sons, all of whom will encounter injustice, discrimination and foul play in that hostile and deeply competitive environment. In addition, his world view will be challenged by his unconventional girl-cousin Epiny; and by the bizarre dreams which visit him at night. And then, on Dark Evening, the carnival comes to Old Thares, bringing with it the first Specks Nevare has ever seen...

This first contact proves to be a dramatic one, as the other self of Nevare comes to the fore and instructs the Specks to do the "dust dance". This dance, which consists of the dancers showering the on-lookers with dust, results in a widespread Speck plague both in the Academy of the cavalla and in Old Thares. Seized by a fever, Nevare finds himself once again crossing the bridge sealed by his own sword during the ritual set up by Dewara. He is not alone however, as he finds himself with what appears to be ghostly forms of all the people dying from the plague, including notably Caulder, and Spink. He does not end his crossing, as he is expelled from that realm, as Tree woman still needs him in the physical world.

Joined by Epiny in the infirmary, Nevare finds Spink dying next to him. Aided by his cousin, he journeys once more to the bridge in what ends up to be a climatic battle between him, his other self and the Tree woman. Despite the odds stacked against him, he manages to turn the tide of the battle by retrieving his sword, the "iron magic of his people". The bridge disappears and Nevare manages to slash the Tree woman, allowing Epiny to save his friend, before being once more expelled.

Nevare eventually recovers and this part of the story ends as he finds himself returning to the Academy.

Characters in "Shaman's Crossing"

  • Nevare Burvelle – the main protagonist
  • King Troven – ruler of Gernia
  • Lord Keft Burvelle – Nevare's father
  • Corporal Parth – Nevare's soldiering tutor at the story's opening
  • Scout Halloran – scout for the army
  • Sil Halloran – Halloran's daughter, part Gernian, part Plainspeople born
  • Commander Hent – commander at Franner's Bend
  • Sergeant Duril – Nevare's riding tutor
  • Selethe Burvelle – Nevare's mother
  • Rosse Burvelle – Nevare's eldest brother
  • Vanze Burvelle – Nevare's younger brother
  • Yaril Burvelle – Nevare's younger sister
  • Elisi Burvelle – Nevare's elder sister
  • Master Rissle – Nevare's academic tutor
  • Dewara – A Kidona tribesman hired to teach Nevare
  • Lord Sefert Burvelle – Nevare's uncle, Keft Burvelle's older brother. Father of Epiny.
  • Epiny Burvelle – Nevare's younger cousin, an eccentric girl
  • Colonel Stiet – commandant of the King's Cavalla Academy
  • Caulder Stiet – Colonel Stiet's son, a ubiquitous presence at the academy, disliked by cadets
  • Spink (full name : Spinrek Kester) – a short, poor, but honest cadet at the academy; Nevare's friend, his mathematics skills are particularly weak.
  • Gord – a wealthy, obese, highly intelligent cadet at the academy; Nevare's friend, although most cadets dislike him.
  • Trist – a handsome, likeable academy cadet with a penchant for bending the rules


  • The book's dedication reads "To Caffeine and Sugar, my companions through many a long night of writing."

Release details

  • 2005, UK, Voyager ISBN 0-00-719612-1, Pub date 4 July 2005, Hardback
  • 2005, UK, Voyager ISBN 0-00-721468-5, Pub date 4 July 2005, Hardback (1000 copy limited and numbered edition)
  • 2005, USA, EOS ISBN 0-06-075762-0, Pub date September 2005, Hardback
  • 2006, UK, Voyager ISBN 0-00-719613-X, Pub date 6 February 2006, Trade Paperback
  • 2006, UK, Voyager ISBN 0-00-719614-8, Pub date 3 July 2006, Paperback (with new cover)
  • 2006, USA, EOS ISBN 0-06-075828-7, Pub date September 2006, Paperback


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