When the prologue of A Crucible of Souls started to play, I noticed a few interesting things happen simultaneously. First, I recognized instantaneously that the reader, Oliver Wyman, would be fantastic. Second, I thought “oh I know where this is going.” And finally, I thought, “this, again?”
You see, over the past year I’ve found that epic fantasy has gotten a bit stale for me. This doesn’t cover all of epic fantasy, not by a long shot. But I’ve grown tired of some of the tropes endemic to the genre. This feeling was particularly pronounced when I listened to The Sword of Shannara, which I found tiresome and derivative, much to the chagrin of a few commenters on the internet.
Poorly understood precursor civilizations, whose only remains are valuable artifacts, some language, and thinly veiled threats to not repeat their mistakes, lest you lead the world to a second “shattering,” or “breaking,” or “cataclysm.” A young boy who feels strange, then finds he has an aptitude for magic far beyond what a “normal” boy should have. A big city, idolized in dream, only it is actually a filthy place, rife with thieves and danger.
And A Crucible of Souls has those things. In fact, at about a quarter of the way through the audiobook, I contemplated turning it off and giving up.
And then I decided that no, I would give it a chance. And I’m glad I did.
What began as a dive through tropes of epic fantasy became a series of reminders about why I found the genre so compelling for so many years.
Mysteries wrapped in more mysteries. Factions and politics and betrayal. Magic and swordplay, learning and bending the boundaries of what’s possible within a framework. And through it all, the thread of good and evil, always twisted so that it isn’t quite obvious where some of the characters stand, and paragons of either side to provide a compass for “true good” and “true evil” in the world.
A Crucible of Souls has all of that in spades. Oliver Wyman’s reading brings the book to life, making the nineteen-ish hour listening journey fun, dramatic, and engaging.
Of those three things I realized at the outset of the prologue, one was absolutely true, one was totally false, and the third was partially true.
The narration was fantastic—I highly recommend you picking up the book on audible if fantasy’s your cup of tea.
I wasn’t quite right about where the book was going. It held more than a few surprises that really satisfied.
And while “this, again?” was false, it’s an easily rectified error. Now I can think of epic fantasy and say, “this, again!”
In particular, I enjoyed the way A Crucible of Souls dealt with swordplay and its magic system. The swordplay was great because it was fluid—the way Hogan was able to slow time and give the reader the same sense of focus—and confusion—that Caldan, the protagonist, experiences as he fights. He’s faster and stronger than he has ever been, and doesn’t know why. Sword fighting comes more naturally to him, and he loses himself in the fights, unaware that he’s displaying an uncanny mastery over the blade. I think that Hogan achieves this by being intentionally vague with the minutae of the fight. You get a sense of what’s happening and some basic blocking of the scene, but more generally, you’re imbued with the feeling of the fight. It’s beautifully done, and reminds me of why I loved the fight scenes in the Wheel of Time series so much.
The magic is treated similarly. We are given details not about the mechanisms by which Caldan achieves his magical feats; rather, we are shown his feelings, thoughts, and learning process as he experiments. We know nothing of what the runes and glyphs he carves into metal and paints onto paper are, but we know what he hopes to achieve with them and, ultimately, how well his creations perform under pressure.
What we end up with is a character who is fiercely talented, almost unreasonably good, and very competent. Typically, this type of “superhero” can be a bore to read, but Caldan also has trust issues, and keeps many secrets, which makes him much more interesting. All told, A Crucible of Souls is a fun work of epic fantasy, that I’m sure is followed by an excellent series. I don’t know that I’ll be picking up the next books any time soon, but they’re on my list for the future.