Review: The Cipher

The Cipher by Diana Pharaoh Francis

This is an interesting novel I picked up via Scribd. It was, to me, a strong example of a modern fantasy novel.

Synopsis: Lucy Trenton, a customs agent of the magical isle of Crosspointe, finds herself caught in a web of lies & treason. Her own lies catch up with her, her secret to sense majick and the secret of the dangerous cursed objects known as ciphers, named for their creator – the greatest majickar to ever live. Her only hope is ship captain Marten Thorpe, who–by every account–cannot be trusted. With time running out, Lucy must find a way to win a dangerous game or lose everything she holds dear.

  • World building: I can tell D.P. Francis knows the world she is writing, and it seems like it is consistent world building… but…
  • Characters: Lucy & Marten are the only two characters with fully-formed backstories we get to see.  There is a great cast of other characters, with hints that they each have some great stories – but we’re left hanging on what those stories are.
  • Plot: A good tale with several strong lines of danger coming at the protagonist. Occasionally, the plot is a little obvious but not in an un-enjoyable way.

So let me start by saying in big, loud words: I ENJOYED THIS BOOK. I need to say that because I do have some strong criticism. As a writer, I know how hard world building is, but that is the biggest weakness to this book. I felt like it was a possibly rich world, but it took a long time for me to grasp it. Francis sees it, she smells it – she lives in Lucy’s skin so much that I expect Francis feels the world. I know this because Lucy see, smells, & feels the world so well.

The problem is the… concepts. If this was “modern world New York” assumptions on how people get to work and why so-and-so is in their political/corporate position might be able to be assumed. Name dropping is ok in that context. Unfortunately, Francis seemed to struggle with this. The major concepts which under-gird the magic-system (majick) are never really explained. How and when are “majickars” found? What is this “Pale” that might be failing and why does it matter? What is sylveth? Is it a wind? A liquid? Why does this little isle have all these magical “Pilots” and no one else? What’s here?

FYI – I made assumptions and feel like I know the answers to most or all of those questions, but note my language there: feel, maybe, assumptions… I still don’t feel like I really understand the currents which drive the world’s magic system.

Likewise, names are occasionally dropped like I should know them without context of who they are and why they are significant in the moment they are introduced. Usually, it becomes clear later. Francis definitely tries to employ the “show don’t tell” philosophy of storytelling, but (as usual) in a self-contained world we need some different anchors to help us build the world with the author. (She’s like the direct opposite of Tolkien on this front who would describe the building & then tell the story of it’s super-famous architect even though it has nothing to do with the plot).

Now, this was not such a thing that it in any way kept me from reading voraciously. Lucy was great character (brash, stubborn, fun) and definitely kept me reading. The plot built quickly and drew me into wanting to find out “what is going to happen next!” in a very great rhythm.

In fact, the overall flow of the plot – the rises and pauses in action are beautifully done. Even with my occasional “wait, what?” moments, nothing drove me out of the plot or out of the immersion of the book. There were places where I wished she would give a little exposition because I wanted to see better or understand the context of importance, but the plot was moving such that I couldn’t be bothered to gripe.

If you need a good weekend-escape read, I definitely recommend The Cipher. In fact, this weekend I look forward to starting the second in the series and hope to get to further explore the world containing Crosspointe.

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