REVIEW: Cipher by Diana Pharaoh Francis
Dear Ms. Pharaoh Francis:
There’s a lot of discontent in the romance community over the use of shortcuts. Essentially, an author relies on certain words or phrases to depict an entire emotional or psychological backstory for a character. Long time romance readers understand intuitively what the author is trying to convey, but newcomers to the genre often wonder at the appeal due to lack of familiarity.
When I was reading Cipher, a straight fantasy with romance undertones, I felt similar complaints. I wondered time and again if I had more experience in reading the fantasy genre that maybe I would understand this book better. However, if I can borrow a metaphor from your seafaring world, I felt moorless and adrift.
Lucy Trenton is a member of the Rampling family, the royal class of whatever world Lucy inhabits. The information from your site says that the setting is the “island world of Crosspointe.” (I admit to not really getting that Crosspointe was an island instead of a sea bordering land). The waters surrounding Crosspointe are inhabited by sylveth, magickal creatures who change everything they touches, animate or inanimate, into terrible destructive creatures. The Pale, a ward, is the only thing that keeps Crosspointe from being overrun. The Pale, though, is cracking and Crosspointe is a land under seige. Lucy Trenton might be the only answer.
Lucy is a customs official who is in charge of cataloguing the contents of each ship that comes into the harbor. She is accused of treason for stealing a blood oak which is essential for creating large magicks, such as the Pale.. She is also being blackmailed for something she did do wrong (very wrong). And a magical artifact has attached itself to her. Ultimately, there are three things that she must fight: the charge of treason, the blackmailer, and the magical artifact? Crowded much?
The book was overcrowded with plots and ideas but weirdly, it was slow. The first twenty chapters took weeks for me to slog through as nearly incoherent backstory was provided to set up Lucy’s confrontation with the big bad.
I didn’t much like Lucy who lied and cheated when it suited her purpose but looked down on those who also lied and cheated for their own purposes. I didn’t much like Marten who was so addicted to gambling that it made him an easy mark to use against Lucy and others. I didn’t really see how Marten suddenly gave up his love for gambling.
Character development, however, takes a backseat to the worldbuilding and the fantasy. Problem for me is that I barely understood what was going on. I felt that there must be some fantasy to English language book that I should have picked up as a companion piece to this story.
I didn’t get the world. I didn’t understand how these people related to each other, either individually or as part of a greater whole. There is a pretty huge cast of characters which are introduced, told to the reader that they are important but then disappear for huge chunks of the book.
I wondered at everything from the use of the names such as Lucy and Marten to her friend Sarah. There weren’t any continuity to those names, no common etymology. The names derive from different cultural backgrounds (i.e., Lucy is commonly understood to be French, Marten likely Latin, and Sarah is Hebrew or Biblical). Chancery was mixed with the term eminent domain (i.e., the Court of Chancery is an English term and eminent domain more commonly understood to be an American one). But the mixing of the different terms seemed very jarring to me to the point that I started questioning the origin of nearly every term. Once you even used the word “archivolt” and I wondered if that was made up. It’s not but it has an Italian origin. When Marten is sold into slavery, he is taken to a bagnio (which is either a Turkish prison or a brothel). Why not just use the term brothel? I think I spent more time googling than reading the book.
Money is known as “dralions”. The Lord Chancellor hands down a criminal decree (historically speaking, Chancery courts were ones of equity). There are horses but also newspapers. Then there was the faux Scottish dialect that the lower class used. Lucy’s lady’s maid says to her:
"Well, then, ye've woken, have ye? And keepin' me up all night worryin'. Don't think I didna hear ye trampin' about like a cat in a cage. Ye ought to be ashamed of yerself, not a single thought to anybody's feelins but yer own.–Ã‚
I kept wondering if it was common in fantasy books to portray the underclass with faux Scottish dialects because there wasn’t any mention of the lady’s maid coming from Scotland nor was there any explanation for why she spoke with the “ye’s” and the “didna’s”. When Lucy impersonates someone of the lower class, she speaks with more of a broken, canted English “Wi' Chance comin' and food bein' so scarce and all, I wondered if'n I might be 'lowed t'stay on as a boarder maid. Leastwise till end o'Chance.”
Lucy herself was often unexplainable. She’s set up as this sort of hard bitten woman, but three chapters in, Lucy is confronted with a crisis and is forced by a friend to drink some liquor. She isn’t even aware of what the liquor is:
"What was that stuff?" she gasped, pressing her hands to her abdomen. A furnace roared inside. Her head swam and her vision turned fuzzy. Her muscles felt soft and fluid.
"Meris's tears," he said with a thin smile.
"Meris's–"what?" she said, slurring her letters.
"The liquor of the sea. Don't worry, things will settle in a moment. They'll just seem– farther away.–Ã‚
What follows is an action scene in which Lucy’s friend, Jordan, and his friend, Marten, and others battle the sylveth spawn. Why would she need the numbing, drugging effect of the drug but not Jordan and Marten? Why wouldn’t she know what “liquor of the sea” is if she is a customs official and if she is so tough and capable, why is some man taking care of her?
I had no clear understanding of Lucy’s world, her societal structure, the magic or the interplay of the two, even by the end of the book. I knew that there was some type of royalty and that Lucy was part of the royal family but the royal family was tied up in Chancery with some issue regarding eminent domain and so every one of the royal family was working. There are guilds. There is “society” and then some lowerclass Scottish speaking folk who are not Scottish.
There were magics created by one man but no explanation as to how he created the magic, how he imbued objects with magic and why he was the only one doing so. Was magic a science or a spirit based entity? What was the source? Energy? Blood? I think therefore it is? At one point, there is a suggestion that music and harmony is part of the magic but that’s so bizarre given there is no importance placed on language or sound or music earlier in the book.
On the one hand, the book is clearly imaginative but on the other, it was so disjointed with mismatched words, phrases, entities, characters, and magics/magicks that it was a real struggle to finish. Because I didn’t much like either of the main characters, the romance was a total miss for me. I pretty much felt that the two deserved each other. Once I hit the last 3d of the story, the book picked up steam but I don’t have the energy to follow this through. This is the first and last Crosspointe novel for me. C-.