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A Crucible of Souls
by Mitchell Hogan
HarperVoyager, $17.99, 512pp
Published: September 2015

I really didn't hold out much hope for 'A Crucible of Souls', the debut novel from Australian writer Mitchell Hogan and the first in his 'Sorcery Ascendant Sequence.' The cover blurb looked relentlessly generic and not one thing stood out for special attention. So it sat on my shelf for a couple of months while I prioritised other review copies.

And then I read it. In two sittings. All 500 pages of it. I finally went back to bed at 4.30 this morning and now need to fix my body clock again before I go back to work tomorrow. That'll be fun. Thank you, Mitchell Hogan!

What's oddest about these 500 pages is that they feel like they constitute a prologue rather than a novel. We haven't really had a story yet, just an introduction to a few key players and the world they live in. I was ready for Chapter 1 to begin right after Chapter 43 ended and the book with it.

We've watched Caldan, the lead character, grow; to the point that he's as inquisitive as we are as to who he really is, what he can do and what those trinkets are that have been passed down to him by his mysterious family. He grew up as an orphan, taken in by a monastery as a ward and taught about sorcery and sword-fighting and playing the game of Dominion. He is kicked out after he seriously wounds another, more socially important, boy in an ill-conceived duel with wooden training swords. He travels to the city of Anasoma, becomes apprenticed to the Sorcerer's Guild and learns a great deal, not all of which he's actually taught.

We've seen him encounter a number of other characters and build a variety of relationships with them, but we're really not far ahead of him in terms of discovering who they really are either.

Clearly Miranda, who is working on the boat which takes him to Anasoma but who promptly leaves its service, when he disembarks, to buy a warehouse, isn't what she first appears to be. Clearly she's angling for a romantic entanglement with Caldan but not getting very far, partly because he's at the blushing stage rather than the leaping into bed stage, partly because his monastery upbringing has sheltered him from much and partly because the timing is pretty awful, with some serious things going down in Anasoma that don't seem to want to leave Caldan alone. None of Miranda's secrets are revealed here at all.

Clearly Amerdan isn't just the supernatural psychopathic serial killer that he initially appears to be. He's suffering under some sort of curse, from a sorcerer who is never named for reasons that are never entered into. He's a bad man and a good man all at once and if he has more secrets than Miranda, it's only because he's more shadowy and less outgoing.

Clearly Lady Felicienne is a lot more than just a good Dominion player who makes money beating others in pubs and tournaments. We're told that she's Third Adjudicator to the Emperor, but what that actually means beyond being some sort of spy is never explored. She may have more secrets than Miranda and Amerdan put together.

By comparison, only Elpidia is an open book, which in this context probably means that she has more secrets than any of the others. She appears to be a healer, a good one too, but who has been unable to heal herself. Caldan is unnaturally fast at recovering from serious wounds, so she clearly wants some of his blood and he's rather reluctant to let her have any, for reasons that are skipped over at the rather tumultuous time in which the conversation arises.

I should add here that this is one strand of the plot, albeit the prominent one. It unfolds in the Mahruse Empire, where we learn with Caldan about the notable differences between the accepted knowledge that is handed down to all and sundry, and the reality that hides behind it. There are sorcerers and Protectors and we learn a little about the commonalities and differences between the two; the latter a subset of the former tasked with protecting the world from the use of destructive and coercive magic. The sorcerers we meet work only in constructive magic, which is harder but less dangerous. The more sinister kind is discounted as myth, something that may have been possible before the Shattering, a crucial detail of history that is subtly explained around thus far, but not possible any more.

A second strand is introduced around the fifty-page mark, in which a group that remind of witchfinders pursue a group of sorcerers in order to destroy them. It's hard to figure out if either side are good or bad people for the longest time, because we see precious little of the latter and there's a moral battle going on within the former with the leader, Lady Caitlyn, an uncompromising fundamentalist and her assistant, Aidan, a softer-hearted soul who struggles with her decisions.

A third shows up no less than a hundred and fifty pages in, as a magistrate by the name of Vasile, with the useful talent of being able to discern whether something is truth or lie, stumbles upon a mystery involving the Five Oceans Mercantile Concern, a trading company which becomes more and more mysterious with each appearance.

These three strands do meet, but not for a while: one joins the main strand halfway through the book and the other right at the very end, yet another reason why this feels like a prologue to a story rather than a story itself. Its end feels very much like a beginning, because people finally meet other people and surely they're about to meet some more people, all of whom we've been following for five hundred pages without any real explanation of why.

And all this makes me wonder what sort of magic trick Mitchell Hogan worked here. His prose is clear but deliberate. It's good stuff but it doesn't ring out with style. I never heard a unique voice, but I kept on listening anyway. I also realise that I've read five hundred pages and wonder what was in them. Sure, we've met characters and we've followed them on adventures, but we're not really sure who anyone is yet. Sure, we've walked around Anasoma but we don't have a map in our heads. These places never leapt off their pages in detailed colour. Everything is thrown into a situation of massive scale but which we really don't understand yet.

So what's here? Does the Emperor have any clothes on? I wish I could answer that question. All I know is that I had low expectations for this and yet something in what Mitchell Hogan put onto these pages kept me up all night. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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