The Cipher, by Diana Pharaoh Francis (Roc, 2007)

Lucy Trenton leads a complicated life. A member of the Rampling family, which rules the powerful harbor city of Crosspointe, she works as a customs inspector, responsible for overseeing so much of the trade which flows through the city. What very few people know, however, is that she can actually sense majick in its various forms, an ability which earned her distrust and mockery as a child. What no one (or so she thinks) knows is that Lucy has accumulated a small collection of so-called “true ciphers,” dangerous majickal artifacts whose possession is strictly illegal. And then, after one fateful day, everything changes. First, a cipher attaches itself to her arm. Invisible to everyone but her, unable to be removed, chances are good it’ll kill her, sooner or later. And then the first of several letters shows up, claiming to know all about Lucy’s secret collection and threatening to reveal this information to the public if she doesn’t betray the trust placed in her as a customs inspector.

Under a likely death sentence, and swayed by the blackmail, Lucy has no choice but to make the wrong choice, no matter which way she turns. Her life begins to spiral out of control, faster and faster, and even her friends and family begin to suffer. Worse, one of the only people Lucy can count upon now is Captain Marten Thorpe, a roguish man whose gambling debts have sent him down a self-destructive path partially orchestrated by a ruthless conspiracy. The two will have to work together if they want to unravel the true nature of a threat, not just to themselves, but all Crosspointe. And just what’s the story behind Lucy’s cipher, anyway?

The Cipher is the first in a fascinating new series by Diana Pharoah Francis, and so far, it’s shaping up to be a remarkably intriguing twist on the usual fantasy setting. Instead of hewing to the medievalesque timeframe most fantasies find most comfortable, Crosspointe seems to take its inspiration from the heyday of the British Empire, circa the 19th Century (though history not being my strongest point, I may be a little off, here), and more importantly, from a time when trading ships and merchant vessels made up a vast part of a global economy. It’s a refreshing change of pace, and a setting that seems ripe for exploration. Francis throws in a healthy dose of manipulation, corruption, intrigue, and politics to go with the surface trappings, presenting an environment always on the verge of explosive, unpleasant change. Add to that the enemies amassing at the metaphorical gates, both inside and outside of Crosspointe, and you have plenty of fodder for future volumes in the series.

The characters are definitely complicated and full of morally grey areas: Lucy’s responsible for upholding the law, yet breaks it on a regular basis, while Marten Thorpe’s a despicably flawed man whose weaknesses affect the people around him as much as they do himself. Lucy’s best friend is a potentially ruthless killer playacting at being a respectable woman of business, and one of Marten’s best friends is an unregistered majicker in a society where all majick practioners are required to register and work part-time for the government. They’re not the most heroic of people, but separate and together, they provide an interesting dynamic, especially as Lucy and Marten get to know each other better . . . perhaps a little too well.

There’s actually a lot going on in this book, with several deep-layered plots weaving in and out, and it all culminates in an epic manner, laying down a status quo which will make the next book in the series, The Black Ship, all the more interesting. I’ll certainly be looking forward to it, that’s for sure, if just to see what happens next in the tale of Lucy Trenton and Marten Thorpe. This is definitely a fantasy to look out for.

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