SPFBO9 Semifinalist: Crucible Of Lies by Mitchell Hogan (reviewed by Esmay Rosalyne)

Order the book HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Crucible Of Lies is a book that I would probably not have picked up
if I hadn’t had to read it for SPFBO9 judge duties. However, as soon as I read
the first page, I was fully enthralled. A framing narrative, an unreliable
narrator, morally gray characters, unique yet terrifying soul/mind magic, and
lots of cutthroat political intrigue; this book has everything you could want
from a dark high fantasy.

This is the story of Zerach-Sangur,
the notorious and highly feared immortal God-like emperor. At the start of this
book, a failed assassination attempt prompts him to share his life story with
his would-be assassin. If she still thinks he deserves to be killed after she
has heard his version of his life story and his legendary rise to power, she
has his permission to do so. 
We are transported thousands of years back in time to when the emperor was
living as ‘Zah’, a young orphaned
boy desperately trying to survive in the brutal undercity together with his
older sister. What follows is a harrowing coming-of-age tale full of
devastating magic, unique steampunkish creatures and inventions, unlikely found
family vibes, dangerous political machinations, and a whole lot of secrets,
lies, and betrayals.

Now, framing narratives generally tend to
work well for me, but this particular execution may have been one of my
favourites I have seen to date. The emperor does not simply tell his story to
the assassin, but actually takes control over her brain and starts implanting
the story in her mind, which makes the whole situation a thousand times more
shady and dubious.

Needless to say, Zerach-Sangur is
easily one of the most conflicting yet compelling protagonists I have ever read
from. He spins an engrossing story that tugs on your heartstrings, yet at the
same time you can’t help but wonder if he isn’t just fooling you with his
manipulative mind magic and deceptively sharp tongue.

Also, I loved the contrast between the innocent young ‘Zah’ and the awe-inspiring Zerach-Sangur.
While you can see glimmers of
potential, it largely feels inconceivable how he went from such an endearing
little boy to the fearsome and immortal emperor that he is today. And not only
Zah’s personality completely
different in past and present, but his character voice, the world building, the
atmosphere, and the overall prose also shift along with it, which makes the
reading experience so immersive.

Speaking of world building, I thought that this world and the magic system were
extraordinarily captivating and I loved that this story is just dripping with
intrigue and mystery, in both timelines. The author doesn’t waste time in
showing off the incredibly fascinating and unique soul-sucking/mind control
magic system, which immediately lured me in and kept me fully entranced from
start to finish. 
And even though I felt a bit overwhelmed by the unfamiliar concepts for the
first couple of pages/chapters, everything did naturally fall into place as the
story went along and I loved gobbling up all the new pieces of information as
they were revealed.

Now, the first 60% of this book was pure 5-star material for me. Everything
about it just clicked and I could not stop turning the pages. And while the
story never truly lost me, the last third of the book did contain some more
horror-leaning twists and turns that I personally wasn’t totally on-board for. I
also wanted a bit more from the side characters, because while I enjoyed the
unlikely found family vibes in the past timeline, I wasn’t able to get fully
emotionally invested in the extended cast of characters and that made some of
the losses, sacrifices or betrayals fall a bit flat for me.

that said, I still consider this one of the better books I have read this year
and the final few chapters completely hooked me in for the rest of this series.
This first book is chock-full of intriguing revelations, but most of them lead
to even more questions, and I am desperate to see how things will unfold from

If you want an immersive dark fantasy with an unreliable narrator and you don’t
mind some horror and steampunk elements thrown into the mix, then you have to
check out
Crucible Of Lies

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