Review – The Cipher (Crosspointe Chronicles #1) by Diana Pharaoh Francis


Publisher: Belle Bridge Books
Publish Date: Out Now
How I got this book: NetGalley

Lucy Trenton’s ability to sense majick is one of her most dangerous secrets. But only one.

A blackmailer knows the other.

Suddenly, Lucy is caught in a treasonous plot to destroy the crown, and she’s trapped in the tentacles of a desperate, destructive majick. 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.

*blurb from author’s website

The Cipher, originally published in 2007, has just been re-released. According to the author’s website: “If you read the original version, it’s much the same, though there have been some edits to strengthen the characters more.” This was a first read-through for me, so I can’t speak to how the story has changed from its original version.

I enjoyed the writing style. The dialogue felt fluid and had a good rhythm. The language and setting had the feeling of a historical and yet the story was set in fantasy with characters who were not bound by the usual historical conventions. I liked that very much. Lately, I’ve shied from historicals because as much as I love the setting, I have come to dislike the antiquated social mores and how those mores tend to be used as plot devices to put women in situations they wouldn’t otherwise choose for themselves. None of those societal restrictions existed in The Cipher. I found the blend of a historical feel with a more equal social structure refreshing.

Although Lucy is of royal blood, she has to work for a living. Apparently, all the royals do as there aren’t any free-rides in Crosspointe. Lucy enjoys her work as a customs inspector. She also has a secret that threatens not only her career, but everyone who knows her. Lucy is blunt, to the point, and tenacious. I liked her introspective nature. Marten is a good man at heart, but is also lost to a terrible addiction. He didn’t think his gambling would hurt anyone but himself. He soon learned the folly of such thinking.

Both main characters were flawed and living within their own hypocrisy. Lucy was a customs officer sworn to uphold the law while at the same time willfully breaking it. Marten was caught in the sticky web of addiction that lead him further down a sink-hole of despair in which he lied, cheated, betrayed, and acted out of cowardly self-preservation. It wasn’t until his back was against the wall and was faced with a final debasement that he found the will to act selflessly. I suppose one could argue “too little too late” considering the damage he had caused, but I suppose that is a question for each reader to ask of themselves. Is there a point of no return when it comes to redemption?

Personally, I think that while we all make mistakes in life, we still have to find a way to continue living and contribute to the world around us in positive ways. Redemption is a deeply felt shifting of the heart and mind, bringing them into alignment. From that point forward, a person has no choice but to choose differently because their heart and mind simply won’t let them go back to old patterns. From that perspective, I do think Marten redeemed himself in the end and that the fates agreed. Lucy knew that she’d made a mistake that dearly cost those who knew her, putting them in harms way. So when Marten’s betrayal lead to her being accused of more wrong-doing, she ultimately didn’t hold it against him. She took the attitude of “how can I judge you, when I’ve done worse to many others.” We all know that forgiveness is something we should strive to do, yet it can be the most difficult thing in the world. Lucy manages to look at herself first, acknowledging her own role in how everything played out and chose the path of forgiveness rather than bitterness. I found that insightful and inspired.

I found the worldbuilding of Crosspointe and the surrounding realms creative and interesting with the magickal system of raw sylveth (magickal matter that transforms whatever it touches–usually in horrific ways), worked sylveth (raw sylveth rendered safe to handle and used to craft spells), ciphers, and the magicars who worked with it all. I could relate to the world of Crosspointe because it felt both familiar and strange. Keros, as a secondary character, provided essential support to both Lucy and Marten. Whereas, Lucy’s family felt a bit less connected to the story as a whole. I was uncomfortable with the characterization of the evil Jutras and couldn’t completely decouple from a niggling sense of stereotyping in how the Jutras were depicted. That bothered me.

I really enjoyed the tension leading up to the climax and how the story built up in layers, but the resolution felt a tad bit flat to me because all the tension leading up to a specific event toward the end…just conveniently went away. [spoiler]Bramble Island is supposed to be a death sentence because there is no way to avoid coming into contact with raw sylveth. Typically, raw sylveth changes people into grotesque creatures bent on destruction, and yet both Lucy and Marten are transformed in positive ways. Afterwards, Lucy was able to conjure whatever she wanted/needed with seeming ease, there wasn’t a cost to using the magick anymore or any difficulty in using it. Although this gets explained, sort of, I found it a bit too convenient. She gets dragged through the coals because of the cipher, and then poof! Now she can do anything. Need clothes? No problem. Food? Here you go. Stop a Jutras Invasion? Handled (although, there was a bit of a cost there).[/spoiler]

Also, it seemed odd that the story wrapped up with all the characters sort of arm-in-arm, going on about their merry way while loved ones were still in great peril. I didn’t understand why the King made them promise not to go after the loved ones or why they agreed to it so easily. The narrative just seemed to want to wrap up everything with a tidy bow rather than have any tension about the fate of the people who were headed toward a terrible fate. Hopefully that storyline will carry through the series and get resolved at some point.

In the end, I enjoyed the story overall. The strength of the writing style, the flawed main characters, the thoughtful way in which the ideas of betrayal and redemption were handled, and the layering of the story itself made up for the few road bumps I encountered. I give The Cipher a B.

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