Small press and self-published titles are continuing to increase not only in quantity but also in quality. A Crucible of Souls is an impressive debut from author Mitchell Hogan that shows an sure, deft hand at character and action. Caldan’s parents and sister were slain when he was a young child and he has been raised in a nearby monastery since their deaths. There he has studied arts both magical and martial alongside the children of the rich and noble. As a ward of the monks Caldan isn’t necessarily accepted by the privileged students of the monks and a terrible mistake soon sees Caldan put out of the monastery and sent out into the harsh truths of the real world. With an earnest attitude and keen mind Caldan finds himself apprenticed to the sorcerer’s guild for a short time before world-shattering events see Caldan on a mission of great importance.
While on the one hand Hogan’s story borrows familiar tropes, particularly when it comes to the protagonist, he manages to inject a number of original elements into the story that keep the familiar from being overwhelming. I was particularly impressed the Hogans light-hand when it comes to world building. Hogan sketches out some simple details: the world is a fallen place, unchecked magic from past seemingly have wreaked some great cataclysm that has seen much knowledge both lost and forbidden. The magic that does exist in A Crucible of Souls is primarily practical, magical inventions that are designed for a specific task (sorcerous globes of light, locks that can be magically sealed, etc.) all of which eventually lose their power and crumble to dust (or burst into flames). The crafting of permanent items has been lost to time though powerful magical trinkets from ages past do exist. The mysteries of the lost art of magic is an important aspect of the story. Somehow Hogan’s intricate world-building occurs stealthily in the background and I never really felt bombarded with information overload.
To some extent Caldan can come off as a bit too pefect. Particularly when it comes his magical abilities and his preternatural ability to play the chess-like game of Dominion Caldan seems to be a bit insufferably good. However, Hogan cleverly turns Caldan’s talents on their head with his seemingly amazing abilities being what constantly gets him in trouble. Caldan’s talents frequently overreach his experience in a way that rounds the character out nicely. In A Crucible of Souls Hogan introduces what is perhaps the most fascinating character of the series in Amardan (this could be spelled wrong since I listened to the audiobook). Introduced relatively early in the story Amardan is a shopkeeper who is also a serial-killer. I’m hard pressed to name many fantasy series that introduce a serial killer as a main character but Amardan is a wonderfully compelling character who, even when he is being outright terrible, is consistently entertaining to read. To me it felt like Amardan and Caldan are two sides of the same coin and their similarities are something I hope are explored in future.
The dialogue in A Crucible of Souls can be a bit clunky at times. In the audiobook this is mitigated by Oliver Wyman’s talented narration; his assured delivery of the dialogue distracts from its occasionally stilted tone. Hogan has offered up an entertaining debut in A Crucible of Souls. While not a perfect novel its creativity and winding plot make up for its short falls. A Crucible of Souls won the 2013 Aurealis Award (Australian Science Fiction) for Best Fantasy Novel. The second novel, Blood of Innocents is available now, and a third untitled volume is in the workd.