The Cipher is a Fantasy/Romance hybrid that I bought at Barnes and Noble with my gift card this past February. I have to say that the attractive cover and succinct blurb on the back piqued my interest enough to have me buy it, though I've never read this particular author's work before. But my favorite book pimp, Renee Stern, met up with Ms Francis at an SF/F convention last month, and told me that she had a great conversation with the author, and would be certain to pass on my comments to her when I'd finished the novel.
I must admit the first part of the Cipher was a bit slow going, but the plot and characters gathered steam and started chugging along at a clip by page 24, and once the author has you in her grip, she doesn't let go until the final chapter. The prose was so crisp and correct that it was almost razor-sharp in spots, which is fine in my book, because I much prefer something martial and muscular to flabby prose rife with whining characters and listless dialog in a plot that plods. The structure of the book was beefy, with plenty of action, heroes and villans and slithering subplots to keep readers fascinated and glued to the page.
The story revolves around protagonist Lucy Trenton, a redhead of surprising seriousness who is a member of Crosspointes royal family, the Ramplings. She's had a talent to suss out "majick" since she was a child, but she's had to hide that talent because it isn't appropriate for women in her social position to become majicars, or mages, and none of her relations believe her when she tells them how painful this majick-sensing ability is to her. Because Crosspointe is a seaside town, Lucy has become a customs agent, and as the waters around her town are filled with treacherous sea-monsters and sylveth, a liquid substance capable of changing humans into merciless monsters with poisoned appendages, Lucy stays pretty busy cataloging the products and trade goods washed ashore after ships run aground or break up near the harbor. Unfortunately, there are objects that are invested with sylveth and majick, called Ciphers, that are off limits to all but the vaunted majicars. But Lucy is drawn to their power, and finds herself collecting true Ciphers in secret in an almost addictive way. What Lucy doesn't know is that someone has been watching her, waiting for the moment when he can use his information on her collection of Ciphers against her. Meanwhile, a Cipher that she comes upon attaches itself to her arm, and we're lead to believe that usually when Ciphers attach they kill the person they paracite, sometimes slowly, but always painfully. Lucy meets a gambler who has made a bet with his evil brother about her, and charming but weak sea captain Marten Thorpe enters her life, and brings another thread of intrigue and duplicity to her already complex situation.
Captain Thorpe was one of the few problems I had with this otherwise fine novel. He was, to be blunt, an idiot, a compulsive gambler who never seemed to realize that his elder brother is a sadistic madman and a traitor until it was too late. Of course Lucy, having had a secret collection of ‘true cyphers’ she’s tucked away under her house, isn’t up for citizen of the year, either. But though she takes herself too seriously and needed to work on her sense of humor and ability to resist the call of ciphers, Lucy was, in general, a good strong woman who cares about others and is intelligent enough to be wary of Captain Thorpe from their first meeting. Toward the final third of the novel, Lucy weakens, though, by telling her family and friends everything, and then watches helplessly as they are all convicted of being conspirators and hauled off to a slave ship, so she is certainly not an infallible or perfect heroine, but she’s a far better person than Marten Thorpe.
The other problem I had with The Cipher was the darkness that permeated the middle section of the book, and didn’t lighten at all until the final few chapters. I am not a fan of horror fiction, mainly because I do not like being scared, nor do I enjoy reading about all the pain and suffering characters can be put through at the hands of the villain. Torture isn’t thrilling, it’s disgusting, and I’d prefer not to read about the evils that one sociopath or psychopath can perpetrate on another human being. I also abhor the gory details many authors of “dark fantasy” insist on inflicting on the reader. I realize that this is often done in the name of “realism” but to be honest, if I wanted reality, I’d watch the TV news or read the newspaper. I read novels for enlightenment, entertainment, enjoyment and intellectual stimulation. I also enjoy works that are well written, because beautiful prose is an art form to me. I love words, and I love good storytelling. But when it comes to adding ‘gritty’ reality or darkness to a novel, less is more in my opinion. My friend Renee and my husband would both disagree with me on that point, as neither seems to flinch at bloody descriptions or horrific situations.
Yet I do find that for a good story with well-drawn characters, I will skim over the horrific bits and read the novel all the way through, as I’ve done with Jacqueline Carey’s excellent “Kushiel’s Dart” series. Francis’ characters and story were good enough to keep me going through the nasty parts, though I was beginning to despair of our hero and heroine ever getting a break. Thankfully, they did, and the ending was lovely, if not a total HEA.
I would recommend this book to those who enjoy dark fantasy with a romantic secondary plot, and those who find magic in general to be too easily tolerated as totally benign in most fantasy novels. Francis shows us the side of ‘majick' that can be potent and dangerous, as well as healing and helpful.