Port cities are nothing new in fantasy. In point of fact, port cities are one of the archetypal types of places you will find on a Diana Wynne Jones-esque tour of a fantasy world. Port cities are where cultures meet, where ships from near and far provide opportunities for escape and travel and for the unknown to come to the characters. Anything might be found lurking at the docks, or anyone might be sitting in the dark corner of a wharfside tavern. The markets can have anything for sale, providing further roads to adventure.
Port cities might hold wonderful potential for story, but that perspective is usually from an outsider, or a lower class perspective. The fantasy hero reaching the port after a trip overland. The street-rat who has always haunted the dockside haunts, scraping a living. The pirate who enters a hive of scum and villainy looking for more men for her ship, or to sell off the booty from her last score. You don’t normally have as your hero a government bureaucrat. Like, say…a customs inspector.
Diana Pharaoh Francis’ The Cipher, first in a series of novels being re-released by the author, takes that unlikely protagonist as the starting point. Lucy Trenton is a member of the royal family, but she is hardly the heir to the throne. In point of fact, she is only a fifth cousin to the king. She’s firmly bourgeoisie, working her customs job in Sylmont, the main city in the island kingdom of Crosspointe. She has a sideline as a partner in an antiques shop. Lucy also has a secret ability to sense magic and additional secrets whose revelation could be the doom of not only her life, but Crosspointe itself.
The flawed characters are one of the highlights of The Cipher. The author does a careful balancing act here; Lucy comes across as a competent heroine, untarnished and perfect, a contrast to Marten Thrope, a dissolute captain whose gambling addiction and problems make him come across at first glance as an irredeemable lout. Francis ruthlessly disintegrates these first impressions, however. We learn Lucy’s own dark secrets and what she is willing to do, accidentally and otherwise, when put under threat and pressure. Similarly, the text shows that while Thrope is a dissolute gambler, he rises above that, when the chips are down, when he is similarly tested.The complicated, often fraught relationships that the author depicts in the novel are sometimes painful and feel true and multidimensional. The character arcs rise and fall, and most of the characters go through some very trying times indeed, a crucible that forges and reforges them (more than metaphorically) into something new.
The worldbuilding in The Cipher is rich, deep, and dense; it drops the reader into the world quickly. The reader is bombarded immediately with a wealth of detail in the storytelling that new readers to secondary world fantasy might find overwhelming, but readers used to reading a lot of secondary world fantasy should have no problems. Francis has taken pains and effort to set up her world, and while there is a lot of detail unloaded on the reader, most of it is extremely relevant to the geopolitical stakes of the book and turns out to be plot relevant. Lucy’s role as a customs inspector gives us a perspective into a complicated and important job to Sylmont and Crosspointe, with connections to many of the underpinnings of the world that Francis goes on to detail. I particularly liked the fraught, poorly understood nature of magic in this world (frankly, the word majick, which Francis has her characters use, annoys me). Magic, in the world of Crosspointe, is always dangerous.
However, the antagonist of the novel is, for me, someone with which I had the most problems. The Jutras, an Empire that greedily conquers the lands that border the inner sea, are depicted as an irredeemable, implacable force, with extra helpings of casual and irrational cruelty. More problematic, though, is the uncomfortable racial component to the Jutras Empire. Together, this gives them an uncomfortable ‘savage dark-skinned barbarian Empire’ sort of cast that I can’t imagine the author really meant to convey.
Overall, Francis’ The Cipher is set in an intriguing world, with flawed but interesting characters that pulled me through the narrative. Despite the problems with the novel, the worldbuilding and its characters make for an intriguing and diverting read, especially given the unlikely nature of its protagonist.