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The Cipher, by Diana Pharaoh Francis

I picked up The Cipher [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy], by Diana Pharaoh Francis for three reasons. First, she's another author I've met and chatted with online, and a delightful human being. Second, the book has a freaking gorgeous cover. (Yes, I have cover envy.) Finally, Francis writes a fair amount about ships, something I need to learn how to do for my own mermaid book.

Also, the story sounded like fun :-)

Lucy Trenton is a customs worker in the town of Crosspointe. Lucy's special gift is the ability to sense magick, a useful trick in a town where enchanted sylveth can surge in with the tides, transforming and destroying every creature it touches. Lucy is a good, law-abiding citizen, with one flaw ... she collects true ciphers, magically cursed objects created centuries ago by a magician named Errol Cipher. Lucy must fight a sylveth tide, fight a cipher which has bonded to her arm, and deal with a blackmailer who knows her secret. And then things start to get really dangerous.

Within the first few pages, you can tell Francis has serious worldbuilding skills. Crosspointe is a well-realized port city, full of the rich detail that most fantasies gloss over. And Lucy is a fun, stubbornly determined hero. It took a chapter or two to really draw me in, but then I was hooked. I'm not sure what the rest of my family was doing this morning, because I was curled up on the couch so I could finish the book.

No book is perfect, of course. I was a bit uncomfortable with the description of the Jutras, the savage empire that threatens Crosspointe. Basically, they come across as pure, irredeemable evil. They're merciless, their magic is savage and bloody, and they're all-around bad guys, to the point of appearing inhuman. The way the inhabitants of Crosspointe talk about the Jutras actually evoked some racially-tinged discomfort as I was reading. I'm not really sure what else to say about that. I'll be curious to read book two and see if we learn more of the Jutras and their empire.

The other thing that bugged me was the ending. Lucy is a strong, incredibly determined character, and she spends most of the book fighting for what she believes, and accepting the consequences. Those consequences catch up with her about 80% of the way through the book, but then she receives ... let's call it a gift. I don't want to spoil the ending, so I'm not going to say much more. It wasn't a deus ex machina, but that one part of the story felt too easy, especially compared with everything else she had fought for.

Overall, I'd strongly recommend the book. Francis writes very honestly. Characters and relationships are flawed. Victory comes with a cost. Magic is powerful, but it's a raw, poorly understood power, one that's difficult to control. Nor is Lucy invulnerable to her own magic. When she creates fire, she too is burned. It's a wonderful example of the price of magic, and I cheered the writer even as I gritted my teeth at Lucy's pain.

Bottom line, this is the kind of book that gets a hearty thumbs-up from my friend Optimus. Go read it. And go friend difrancis while you're at it.



( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 31st, 2007 01:30 am (UTC)
I just finished this book today. I agree with your assesment, especially about the last third. It was good, but I got the feeling I missed something. I got a sudden feeling of detachment from Lucy when she 'receives her gift'. She came back, but not until just before the end.

She does have mad world-building skills. Crosspointe is made of awesome.
Dec. 31st, 2007 01:43 am (UTC)
Today must be Cipher Day :-)

Yeah ... I felt like I needed to go back and re-read that section to figure out what just happened. It makes sense, and it connects a lot of things from the story, but there was still a sense of "Huh?"

As for the world-building, within a page or so -- when Francis was describing the action on the ship -- I found myself feeling a bit of despair about the mermaid book I'm working on. Which is a tribute to Francis' writing, but still a bit depressing :-P
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 31st, 2007 02:18 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Di -- that's helpful to know. I'll be looking forward to learning more in book two.

As for Optimus, I think I need to go find a really bad book to review. That toy came with two guns and an axe. A bad review would give me an excuse to use some of 'em :-)

Oh -- and would you believe I've never even been to Disneyland or Disneyworld? I hope you had a good time!
Dec. 31st, 2007 02:07 pm (UTC)
Wonderful review! I came away with alot of the same feelings as you. Di does have mad world-building skills. She's one of the best I've read. I cannot wait for book 2!! :) Darn those publishers and oh yeah... she has to finish writing it. ;p Though I think it's in editing phase which gives me happy goose pimples!!

So, what would your LOL be for this book? Or is it too pretty to make fun of? ;)
Dec. 31st, 2007 02:14 pm (UTC)
I suppose we can allow her time to finish writing it. And then give the publisher maybe a week or so to get it published?

You know, I looked at this one several times, trying to come up with a good LOL macro, but I came up with nothing.
Dec. 31st, 2007 02:20 pm (UTC)
Yup. It's just to pretty. My only thought was 'My necklace, she glows' but it just wasn't funny. :)

And I say a week is more than enough time for it to get published. This whole 'year' thing is nuts!
Dec. 31st, 2007 04:23 pm (UTC)
Wow, Optimus's approval is Da Bomb! LOL!

And I too think it's a pretty pretty cover -- although Lucy on the cover is too pointy, not as round as Lucy in the text...

Happy New Year!
Dec. 31st, 2007 04:34 pm (UTC)
I felt like such a goofy kid getting that gift, but it's a fun toy. The trick is keeping it away from the 2-year-old :-)

To be fair, Lucy does get a bit emaciated at certain points in the book. And come on, you can't expect people to buy a book with a [horrified whisper] plump [/whisper] female on the cover?

::Major eye-rolling here::

Edited at 2007-12-31 04:36 pm (UTC)
Dec. 31st, 2007 04:53 pm (UTC)
Most Transformer toys are not 2 year old friendly, but maybe the Optimus Potato Head is?

And I most certainly can! (okay, maybe not realistically, but a grrl can hope) Maybe even a healthy sized woman with glasses on the cover! :P
Dec. 31st, 2007 05:40 pm (UTC)
As it just so happens, we've got that toy as well. He also got a few quick-transforming toys for Christmas, to go with the hand-me-downs he's got from me and my brother's old collection. The boy's a little obsessed, I tell ya...

Have you seen the Meisha Merlin edition of Hellspark? Very slender heroine, but at least she's got the glasses.
Dec. 31st, 2007 07:39 pm (UTC)
We should probably avoid getting our Transformer obsessed offspring together, for the sake of the rest of the universe.

And I remember that version of Hellspark, although it's not the one I have. :: sigh :: I miss Steve's publishing company...
Jan. 3rd, 2008 04:10 pm (UTC)
Yay 20th Anniversary Optimus Prime!!!
Jan. 3rd, 2008 04:19 pm (UTC)
It was a fun Christmas :-)
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )


Jim C. Hines


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