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Thursday, October 5, 2023

SPFBO9 Semifinalist: Crucible Of Lies by Mitchell Hogan (reviewed by Esmay Rosalyne)



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OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Crucible Of Lies is a book that I would probably not have picked up if I hadn't had to read it for SPFBO9 judge duties. However, as soon as I read the first page, I was fully enthralled. A framing narrative, an unreliable narrator, morally gray characters, unique yet terrifying soul/mind magic, and lots of cutthroat political intrigue; this book has everything you could want from a dark high fantasy.

This is the story of Zerach-Sangur, the notorious and highly feared immortal God-like emperor. At the start of this book, a failed assassination attempt prompts him to share his life story with his would-be assassin. If she still thinks he deserves to be killed after she has heard his version of his life story and his legendary rise to power, she has his permission to do so. We are transported thousands of years back in time to when the emperor was living as ‘Zah’, a young orphaned boy desperately trying to survive in the brutal undercity together with his older sister. What follows is a harrowing coming-of-age tale full of devastating magic, unique steampunkish creatures and inventions, unlikely found family vibes, dangerous political machinations, and a whole lot of secrets, lies, and betrayals.

Now, framing narratives generally tend to work well for me, but this particular execution may have been one of my favourites I have seen to date. The emperor does not simply tell his story to the assassin, but actually takes control over her brain and starts implanting the story in her mind, which makes the whole situation a thousand times more shady and dubious.

Needless to say, Zerach-Sangur is easily one of the most conflicting yet compelling protagonists I have ever read from. He spins an engrossing story that tugs on your heartstrings, yet at the same time you can’t help but wonder if he isn’t just fooling you with his manipulative mind magic and deceptively sharp tongue.

Also, I loved the contrast between the innocent young ‘Zah’ and the awe-inspiring Zerach-Sangur. While you can see glimmers of Zah’s potential, it largely feels inconceivable how he went from such an endearing little boy to the fearsome and immortal emperor that he is today. And not only is Zah’s personality completely different in past and present, but his character voice, the world building, the atmosphere, and the overall prose also shift along with it, which makes the reading experience so immersive.

Speaking of world building, I thought that this world and the magic system were extraordinarily captivating and I loved that this story is just dripping with intrigue and mystery, in both timelines. The author doesn’t waste time in showing off the incredibly fascinating and unique soul-sucking/mind control magic system, which immediately lured me in and kept me fully entranced from start to finish. And even though I felt a bit overwhelmed by the unfamiliar concepts for the first couple of pages/chapters, everything did naturally fall into place as the story went along and I loved gobbling up all the new pieces of information as they were revealed.

Now, the first 60% of this book was pure 5-star material for me. Everything about it just clicked and I could not stop turning the pages. And while the story never truly lost me, the last third of the book did contain some more horror-leaning twists and turns that I personally wasn’t totally on-board for. I also wanted a bit more from the side characters, because while I enjoyed the unlikely found family vibes in the past timeline, I wasn’t able to get fully emotionally invested in the extended cast of characters and that made some of the losses, sacrifices or betrayals fall a bit flat for me.

All that said, I still consider this one of the better books I have read this year and the final few chapters completely hooked me in for the rest of this series. This first book is chock-full of intriguing revelations, but most of them lead to even more questions, and I am desperate to see how things will unfold from here.

If you want an immersive dark fantasy with an unreliable narrator and you don’t mind some horror and steampunk elements thrown into the mix, then you have to check out Crucible Of Lies


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