With the rise of self-publishing, it was perhaps inevitable that the best (and luckiest) of the lot would be picked up by traditional publishers. The Martian took the genre by storm and is now a major motion picture, as they say. The Red garnered similar attention and has now been picked up along with the rest of the trilogy to rave reviews. Is A Crucible of Souls the next in that line? As the late Robert Jordan was wont to say, read and find out.
When young Caldan’s parents are brutally slain, the boy is raised by monks who initiate him into the arcane mysteries of sorcery.
Growing up plagued by questions about his past, Caldan vows to discover who his parents were, and why they were violently killed. The search will take him beyond the walls of the monastery, into the unfamiliar and dangerous chaos of city life. With nothing to his name but a pair of mysterious heirlooms and a handful of coins, he must prove his talent to become apprenticed to a guild of sorcerers.
But the world outside the monastery is a darker place than he ever imagined, and his treasured sorcery has disturbing depths he does not fully understand. As a shadowed evil manipulates the unwary and forbidden powers are unleashed, Caldan is plunged into an age-old conflict that will bring the world to the edge of destruction.
Soon, he must choose a side, and face the true cost of uncovering his past.
What strikes me first and foremost about A Crucible of Souls, in a sub-genre that seems to have discarded its traditional trappings in favor of grimdark, flintlock fantasy, and silk road fantasy, is that A Crucible of Souls is evocative of an older model of epic fantasy. As much as I enjoy those sub-sub-genres, it is a welcome bit of conventionality. There is a callow youth destined for great things (much like Garion from the Belgariad or Rand al’Thor from The Wheel of Time). There is an intricate magic system (much like The Wheel of Time or anything by Brandon Sanderson) and a guild of sorcerers (much like Hogwarts from Harry Potter or the White Tower from The Wheel of Time, albeit a proper guild). There are powerful magical artifacts (much like the rings from Lord of the Rings or the ter’angreal and angreal from The Wheel of Time and literally called “trinkets”). There is a vague, foreign attacking force (much like the Draconians from Dragonlance or multiple examples from The Riftwar Cycle). There is a tangentially related prologue (much like The Eye of the World or A Game of Thrones). It’s comfortable and appealing for the same reasons that all of those books were appealing. That it garnered its initial success as a self-published work is interesting in that light—acquiring editors who are extremely well read in the genre should perhaps be wise to remember that the average reader is not so jaded. And in fact, it sometimes works well because of that. My narrative expectations have changed and once overused tropes now again surprise me.
Which is not to say that A Crucible of Souls is not without its significant flaws. Caldan gets the bulk of the attention and his character arc works very well, but the few other POV characters get short enough shrift that their arcs never develop and their subplots nigh incomprehensible. The naïve youth has long been a stock character in epic fantasy, but Caldan is often naïve to the point of foolishness. The pacing is glacial. You’ll enjoy it if you appreciate the tremendous worldbuilding and like (the very likeable) Caldan, but it is light on action. I’m critical of The Eye of the World for hewing too close to the plot of The Lord of the Rings, but that book moves forward at a feverish pace that A Crucible of Souls cannot begin to match. Very little of the mysteries hinted at are revealed by book end.
All in all, it’s a fun, albeit flawed, read that brings back fond memories.
Disclosure: The publisher sent me a(n unsolicited) copy of A Crucible of Souls.