A Crucible of Souls by Mitchell Hogan

A Crucible of Soulds by Mitchel Hogan | CreateSpace, 2013

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.

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Quick Shot: The Written by Ben Galley

The Written by Ben Galley | Ben Galley, 2011

The Written is the first book in the Emaneska series.  All of Emaneska books were self-published by their author Ben Galley. The Written opens with a mysterious mage murdering some librarians to steal a book for some nefarious purpose. From their readers are introduced to Farden a sword wield, fire-flinging gauntlet wearing mage known for his temper and the fact that his father’s mind buckled under the power of his magics. Farden, we quickly learn is tasked (by his vampire mentor) with tracking down the mysterious book thief and murderer. Of course it isn’t quite as simple as tracking down the thief thanks to the fact that the book was a powerful grimoire once held by the mages of Arfell’s ancient enemy: the Sirens. Farden’s quest leads him down dark paths full of conspiracy, adventure, and magic.

The Written is a solid debut book. This is by no means a perfect novel and it doesn’t necessarily do a lot of new  things but it a solid swords and sorcery adventure. Farden is an interesting lead equal parts confident and flawed; capable of both deep insight and disastrous oversight. The world of Emeaneska is interesting though at least on the surface a fairly generic fantasy landscape. Over the course of the novel Galley focuses his attention on two main cultures: the mages of Arfell and their once enemies the Sirens. Galley’s narrow focus on both cultures and their differences are where the novel is at its strongest and it becomes easy to see how the radical differences in each of these two cultures has lead to conflict and misunderstanding. I do think that Galley is a bit less than even-handed in his presentation of both Arfell and the Sirens. The Sirens, who were the ones defeated in their war with the mages of Arfell, are definitely painted in a more forgiving light that paint’s the mages’ claims of Siren aggression in a very different light.

Galley plays fast and loose with the magic of The Written, there are no big Sanderson-esque magic systems here and the limitations of the Farden’s abilites are not made explicit. The magic of The Written involves writing, particularly in the form of tattoos born by mages like Farden, and that the process of tattooing is dangerous bordering on deadly. What we never find out is precisely what that magic can and cannot do. For the most part Galley offers just enough detail to keep the sorcerous action interesting without being confusing. Galley also show a deft hand at action scenes and crafts several exciting set pieces that unfold in epic situations. The plot is quick and constantly moving forward with at least one major twist that even experienced readers will not see coming.

The Written is currently available for free in Kindle form so there really isn’t any excuse not check it out now. I’ll definitely be giving the rest of Galley’s Emaneska series a shot in the future.

Review: The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh by Steven S. Drachman

The Ghosts of Wat O'Hugh by Steven Drachman
The Ghosts of Wat O'Hugh by Steven Drachman

The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh
Steven S. Drachman
Self-published, 2011

The American West is already imbued with a near mythological quality in the American imagination and thus the combination of the American West with elements of the fantastic is an infrequent occurrence. Given its infrequency I rather look forward to that special combination of familiar American mythology made strange by the mystical or the macabre. So when author Steven S. Drachman asked me to take a look at his novel The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh I was excited to once again delve into the magic of the American West.

The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh is part time travel tale, part ancient mystery, part romance, and part Western adventure. The title character, Watt O’Hugh III, is an orphan, turned cowboy turned Western Hero turned showman. As the novel opens he is living large as the star of his very own Western show funded by none other than J. P. Morgan. Of course things don’t go smoothly for O’Hugh and he soon finds himself embroiled in a scheme to rescue the love of his life, secure money stolen from J. P. Morgan, and stop the discovery of an ancient Chinese secret from destroying the world.

The time travel elements of The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh are subtle despite being prevalent. Drachman cleverly side-steps the typical difficulties of time travel stories by carefully setting out that Roamers can only observe and never change the outcome of past events. It is a nice touch and gives Watt O’Hugh to useful means to get a change in perspective. Of course there is an exception to this rule; a man who Watt eventually (and reluctantly) becomes an agent of. Bizarrely (and refreshingly) the titular Ghosts are never quite addressed completely. You learn where the Ghosts come from but our narrator (Watt himself) is hardly impartial and while his companions question their presence Watt himself (and thus the novel at whole) never does. I think this is a nice touch; it keeps the magic magical.

The heart of The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh is a love story. The novel opens up with Watt’s last brief, cherished encounter with Lucy Billings. Watt’s rose-tinted view of his last moments with Lucy are cut short by the New York Draft Riots and what follows is a hard-scrabble life that eventually leads to some fame and eventually back to Lucy. That reunion is well worth the journey and is one of the most touching scenes I’ve read in a long time. Lucy is the real impetus behind Watt’s actions and her presence, even when she isn’t physically in the novel, is palpable throughout.

The novel, narrated by a future incarnation of Watt, employs a deft tone of both loss and humor. The novel’s only real stumbling block (a well-documented pet peeve of mine) was a lengthy spat of exposition. Said exposition deals with the ancient Chinese secret which, even after all the exposition, I wasn’t too clear on (I suppose because it is still a secret). The pacing up until that point was pretty solid and it took me a minute or two switch gears. It really is a minor issue and Drachman does his best to break it up a little bit but it remains the only part of the novel that really did not work for me. Really that section was just Drachman tapping lightly on the brakes before smashing the gas pedal straight to the floor. The final chapters fly by and feature some of the funniest (Oscar Wilde’s cameo!) and most over-the-top ridiculous (holes in reality!) scenes of the novel.

The Ghosts of Watt O’Hughis one of the most exciting and original debuts I’ve read in years. While it’s being released independently I wouldn’t be surprised to see it picked up by a major publisher at some point in the future. Tragic, funny, thrilling and something completely different The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh is well worth a look for fans of westerns, fantasy, and adventure. This is only the beginning and I really look forward to seeing where Drachman takes Watt next. You can read a sample of the novel, and find out more about the book, at www.watt-ohugh.com.