Jim C. Hines (jimhines) wrote,
Jim C. Hines

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.

Tags: review
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