Fiction Reviews

Crucible of Chaos

(2023) Sebastien de Castell, Jo Fletcher Books,
£20 / Can$35 / US$28, hrdbk, 326pp, ISBN 978-1-529-43700-3


Sebastian's been developing a loyal fan-base in recent years with his 'Spellsinger' and especially his 'Greatcoats' fantasy series, of which there are ten books to date.

First of all, though, I must raise one issue for the sake of clarity - I've not really been a fan of de Castell’s 'Greatcoat' books so far, although admittedly that opinion is based on the first book alone. I found it a little too snarky, a bit too smug for my liking, and there were characters I disliked so much I found that I struggled to finish the book. Having said that I was determined to give de Castell another chance, especially as Crucible of Chaos is the start of a new series, a prequel to the books that have gone before.

Estevar Valejan Duerisi Borros is the King’s Crucible – the Greatcoats’s expert on supernatural happenings. Sent a message from Abbot Venia, Estevar travels to the island of Isola Sombra, rumoured to be the birthplace of the gods, to deal with a situation that Venia feels has a supernatural element to it - that a new pantheon may be arising, and the frantic abbot needs Estevar to settle the dispute.

Estevar finds when he gets there that the island, with its causeway cut off from the mainland, has descended into chaos. A sworn knight claims he has proof the monks are consorting with demons. Venia has been killed and the remaining nuns, monks and priests seem insane. Estevar finds himself not only trying to discover the reason for Venia’s killing, but also deal with three competing groups, each of whom may have a motive.

One group is led by Brother Agneta, a diabolical inquisitor with no love for the Greatcoats. Another faction is led by Mother Leogado, who has turned a group of monks into the Trumpeters, warriors preparing for a possible invasion on Isola Sombra, whilst Strigan leads a group of monks called the Wolf-Men who are convinced that they can gain god-like powers and have been performing occult rituals and burning books as a consequence. There is also Caeda, a mysterious young woman claiming to be Estevar's ally, but who may well be his deadliest enemy.

With a diverse range of suspects, demonic appearances and the possibility of the island being invaded by an external army wishing to take advantage of the situation, Estevar has his work cut out for him.

There’s a lot to like about this book. Generally the prose is detailed and well-thought out, and the world setting, despite being on a relatively minor stage, intriguingly complex. The occult elements create an eerie Gothic-like tone to the proceedings, whilst the demons in the keep are unnervingly horrific - there are some gruesome, violent scenes that show what a danger these supernatural beings are to Estevar and his assistants.

Although the location may be small and the list of important characters short, de Castell develops these main protagonists with skill and depth. Estevar is a Falstaff-ian character, rotund of shape and not the most prepossessing of men, but with a steely determination to see that justice is served and a fierce intelligence that belies his physical appearance.

Much is made of the point that the role of a Greatcoat is not only to proclaim judgement, but also to show how that judgement is made. In fact, much of the book is about how such observations are made. To do this, Estevar uses deductive reasoning and spends much of the book showing Caeda, who wishes to become a pupil to Estevar, how such reasoning is done. It's all rather Sherlock Holmes, with Estevar being the Sherlock Holmes to Caeda, his Watson, or perhaps Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, with its lengthy discourses on human nature and justice. Caeda’s novice status allows the author to discuss elements such as religion, faith, sacrifice and loyalty, all of which are important to the plot. Although the setting is relatively small scale, the situation is very intense.

What creates further tension is that not only is Estevar isolated in the castle keep, but he is also impaired - a near-fatal sword wound from his last judicial duel means that he is not at his best. Furthermore, Estevar manages to lose his usual accoutrements at the beginning of the book. Without his usual arsenal of weapons usually in his Greatcoat, he is forced to rely upon his intelligence and wits in order to survive, and it is this that I liked the most about the book.

It also helped that Sebastien’s handling of the plot is masterful, and even up to the end I wasn’t sure whether Estevar would succeed in his task, although the fact that is a prequel to a new series, and an origin story, made me less concerned. Although at a basic level Crucible of Chaos can be seen as little more than a Fantasy novel version of a locked-room mystery – who killed Venia, and why? - there is a degree of uncertainty in this situation that I found more appealing than the usual murder mystery.

In summary, this was a good start to an intriguing new series. Crucible of Chaos is a good place to start reading de Castell’s work, perhaps better than where I started before; as a standalone novel in the 'Greatcoats' sequence, it can be read without reading the other books in the series. In short, dark, complex, intelligent and detailed, Crucible of Chaos is a Fantasy novel that is a cut above the usual.

Mark Yon


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