A Crucible of Souls: A solid if somewhat familiar entry in the fantasy genre

A Crucible of Souls by Mitchell Hogan fantasy book reviewsA Crucible of Souls by Mitchell Hogan

A Crucible of Souls by Mitchell Hogan is the first book of a trilogy that runs over pretty familiar ground in the coming-of-age fantasy genre and rarely rises above average in its telling, but has a likable enough main character and an intriguing enough plot to keep the reader satisfied.

Caldan is a young orphan raised by monks in a relatively secluded monastery that typically educates the wealthy children of the empire. When an incident occurs between one of those wealthy entitled youth and Caldan, he is expelled from the monastery by the monks, who give him a pair of powerful (and possibly dangerous) heirlooms left to him by his parents. The monks also reveal that what Caldan had been told about his parents’ deaths wasn’t quite the full truth. Determined to make his way in the world, and maybe find out more about his parents, as well as what seems to be happening to him (he’s been experiencing strange physical effects), Caldan heads off to the big city and looks into joining the Sorcerer’s Guild or the Protectors, a somewhat secretive and elite sub-section of the Empire’s guardian forces. Caldan’s eventual apprenticeship becomes more than a little complicated when a potential invasion takes place.

A Crucible of Souls also interweaves several other storylines. One involves a trio tasked by the Emperor to stamp out evil wherever they find it. And their leader, Lady Caitlyn, is willing to do whatever it takes to both find it and destroy it — as she puts it, “There are no innocents.” Another storyline involves a mysterious shopkeeper with a dark secret, a magistrate with a rare skill (or possibly a curse), and a high-level official whose information-gathering may lead her to uncover some dangerous truths.

As noted, there is a lot that will ring familiar to fantasy readers. The orphan, the monastery, the callow youth trying to learn how to control his magic, the “special” character, crafting, a strategy game that may have more to it than on the surface, talismans, a long-ago “Shattering” that left the world almost destroyed thanks to out of control magic, ancient remnant beasts, etc. Familiarity in and of itself isn’t a negative; it’s one of the attributes of genre fiction. But I can’t say Hogan does anything particularly interesting with these tropes, or stamps them with any sort of individual flare. They don’t read solely as cliché — they’re a level above that — but I have no doubt that the story and character will fade relatively quickly into the background of vaguely fantasy-ish narrative/characters. In other words, my guess is if you ask me in six months or so about these books I won’t recall much of them at all.

Prequel

Part of that is the world building is relatively thin. We’re pretty much limited to this single city and don’t have much of a sense of the rest of the empire let alone the world. The magic feels very generic — etch some runes onto some “craftings” and imbue them with your “will” via “strings” or “threads.” And somewhat similarly, some aspects don’t feel fully thought out, feel like they serve in the moment but only for that purpose; they’re no sense of them as necessary to the world, only to the plot.

That said, I did enjoy several of the characters, and that’s what kept me going. Caldan is your typical coming-of-age youth struggling to find his way in the world, but I liked that Hogan lets him make more mistakes (realistically) than a lot of authors allow for similar characters (even if he still suffers a bit from the wunderkind trope). A young female character, Miranda, is engaging even if she suffers from the insta-attraction trope. And the shopkeeper adds a needed bit of edge/bite to an otherwise somewhat flat story. If that seems like faint praise, a lot of yes-but, well, that’s the nature of a book that feel not overly familiar and not quite polished. I wavered between a 2.5 and 3.0 on this one, and so I’d say hold off until reading my reviews of the other books in the trilogy as I get to them.

Originally published in 2013. An imaginative new talent makes his debut with the acclaimed first installment in the epic Sorcery Ascendant Sequence, a mesmerizing tale of high fantasy that combines magic, malevolence, and mystery. When young Caldan’s parents are brutally slain, the boy is raised by monks who initiate him into the arcane mysteries of sorcery. Growing up plagued by questions about his past, Caldan vows to discover who his parents were, and why they were violently killed. The search will take him beyond the walls of the monastery, into the unfamiliar and dangerous chaos of city life. With nothing to his name but a pair of mysterious heirlooms and a handful of coins, he must prove his talent to become apprenticed to a guild of sorcerers. But the world outside the monastery is a darker place than he ever imagined, and his treasured sorcery has disturbing depths he does not fully understand. As a shadowed evil manipulates the unwary and forbidden powers are unleashed, Caldan is plunged into an age-old conflict that will bring the world to the edge of destruction. Soon, he must choose a side, and face the true cost of uncovering his past.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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