Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
Seventeen-year-old Caldan is an orphan who has been raised by monks in a monastery that serves as expensive private school for the children of the Empire’s elite. When a fight with a student turns unexpectedly serious, Caldan finds himself being put off the island a month before he comes of age. Before he leaves, the monks give him his inheritance; two rings, one of which is a trinket, or magical artifact with unknown powers. They also tell him that his parents may have died because of the rings. Alone in the unfamiliar city of Anasoma, Caldan struggles to navigate the world for the first time, and find a place for himself in it. Though he is skilled at sorcery, swordplay, and the popular game of Dominion, it may not be enough to gain him admittance into the secretive Sorcerer’s Guild, where he may find answers about what happened to his parents.
Originally self-published in 2013, A Crucible of Souls and its sequels have been picked up by Harper Voyager for print publication. Author Mitchell Hogan cites the inspiration of J.R.R. Tolkien in his biography, and his work employs many of the traditional tropes and forms of high fantasy, and will feel comfortable and familiar to readers of that genre.
As the first volume in a trilogy, A Crucible of Souls is understandably heavy on world-building and exposition. The characters are varied and intriguing, with women occupying a number of positions of power, though one minor female character was unequivocally fridged to motivate Caldan. I look forward to seeing more of Lady Felice and perhaps Captain Charlotte, as well as finding out more about Miranda. Caldan is an insightful character who can see how things fit together, but only when he understands how things work. Though he is a skilled Dominion player (Hogan’s fantastical version of chess played on a three-tiered board) he is too naïve and inexperienced to always be able to translate this skill into the real world where it would benefit him greatly. Character development is somewhat hampered by the often stilted conversations that accompany their interactions; dialogue is not one of Hogan’s strengths.
The stand-out element here is the varied and flexible magical system that mixes in elements of alchemy, and varies from person to person. Artifacts are important, and while I thought trinket was a rather trivial word to use to describe powerful magical objects, they do have interesting potential. Everything from paper, to wood, to metal can be used to harness magic for some period of time, but the knowledge of how to make artifacts (trinkets) that do not disintegrate has been lost. Although legends from before the Shattering suggest that it is possible to use magic for war and destruction, sorcery as Caldan knows it is a purely creative force with a limited life span.
Interspersed with Caldan’s narration are other chapters from a variety of perspectives, the connection to which is not immediately clear. There is a magistrate who can always tell when he is being lied to, a crusader who believes that the leader of his band is losing her mind, and a shopkeeper with a dark secret. Since Caldan’s tale is slow to start, these chapters provide an opportunity for some action, and also allow Hogan to set out information and perspectives beyond Caldan’s limited experience and knowledge. The story drives towards revealing the connection between the disparate characters, and it is when they begin to move towards one another that the plot picks up steam, setting the stage for the sequel. A Crucible of Souls is a promising start with a few snags, but it really all depends on where we go from here.
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