Note: The Cipher was recently re-released with some changes. This review is of the version released June 30, 2014
My Initial Reaction...
It's been a little bit since I read Diana Pharaoh Francis and I'd sort of forgotten her incredible ability to weave fantasy worlds that blow my mind with their originality, to torture her characters in ways that make me cringe in pain and despair of hope, all while enticing me to not let the book go. The Cipher delivered all that and reminded me why she's one of my favorite authors.
The characters in The Cipher are beautifully complex and flawed. The Cipher is told from the point of view of the two main characters - Lucy Trenton and Marten Thorpe.
I loved everything about Lucy. She's a customs inspector - sounds boring, right? Nope! In this world - which I will gush about thoroughly in the next section - it's anything but boring. It's a position of authority and, as we see right away, requiring some serious cojones! She has to deal with consequences of this serious magical storm that not only wrecks pretty much every ship trying to make its way to her port, but devours - Yes DEVOURS - the people on board and transforms them into dangerous, hideous scary creatures. In just the first few chapters my stomach dropped out numerous times at these horrific descriptions, but Lucy not only had to deal with it - she had to take command of it. And she did so in an admirable way. Sure she has nightmares about it later, but who wouldn't?
So Lucy's kick ass. She's also got quite a mouth on her, refuses to be made into the proper lady her mother wishes she'd be, has no qualms about taking a lover, and tells it how it is - even when talking about herself. She repeatedly says she's rude, insensitive, and not very beautiful - but not in the "feel sorry for me" way. Nope, she takes ownership of who she is and makes no apology. Except on one major issue. She's been committing a serious offense - the kind that will take down not just her but everyone she knows - and in The Cipher it's about to catch up to her. And that's when we saw the other part about her I loved - she owns her mistakes, is willing to face them dead on and take responsibility for them, all while trying to protect others from the possible fall out. And did I mention she won't go down without a fight? Yeah, I seriously love this girl.
And then there's Marten. Oh man I just got so frustrated with him, felt so sorry for him, and fell in love with him - in a pretty fluid circle. Marten's got this really great heart deep down, but he has one major flaw. He's a gambler. Not a "I like to gamble from time to time" kind of gambler. A "I'm going to ruin my life because I can't live without it" kind of gambler. Watching him try to deal with the draw and repercussions of that addiction was painful and brutal in a way only Diana Pharaoh Francis can write. And when his gambling tangles him up with Lucy - things get really messy, he starts to have some serious crises of conscience, and things get really messy again. Marten Thorpe is the walking disaster you can't help but love.
There are some seriously brilliant secondary characters in The Cipher as well. I've gone on and on already though, so I'll just say that from good guy to bad guy, they're all marvelously written and complex.
Oh gosh, this review is already so long and I have so much to say about the world in The Cipher! If you've read Diana Pharaoh Francis you know she's incredibly creative and knows how to build a world. I knew all that going in and still The Cipher's world building blew me away. We've got this island world that felt a bit like Victorian England - strong sea kingdom, corsets, balls, wash basins, quarters within the city, etc - and yet was nothing like it. For one, it's clear that men and women aren't divided along ridiculous gender lines - entire ship crews are made up of men or women, women own businesses, women and men have similar sexual freedoms, etc. She changes all these little details too - not even the same units of measurement for time. Days of the week aren't Monday, Tuesday, etc - they have different names that fit a sea culture. They measure time by the glass. It's different and yet familiar enough that you understand it.
And then there's the magic! I have to admit, this was the one area I would have liked things better explained. Like most high fantasy, in The Cipher you get all these new words that you aren't familiar with and sometimes I got confused about what meant what. But on the whole, it was still brilliant. You've got this whole class of people who practice magic and there supposed to be registered when they have that ability. They are generally healers but they also create magical objects and there's even this magical forcefield (for lack of a better world) protecting the kingdom.
I was gripped by the world & characters from the start - and then the plot was equally awesome. Lucy's being blackmailed and you just know shit's going to hit the fan. Except your really hope it won't. And the beautiful agony of waiting to see what would happen and never being able to know just how far Diana Pharaoh Francis is going to torture these poor people just kept me glued to The Cipher.
If you can handle some serious pain and chilling descriptions and a bit of agony for your characters, I seriously recommendThe Cipher!
I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.