A mortally wounded magistrate faces his deadliest trial inside an ancient abbey where the monks are going mad and the gods themselves may be to blame!
Estevar Borros, one of the legendary sword-fighting magistrates known as the Greatcoats and the king’s personal investigator of the supernatural, is no stranger to tales of ghosts and demons. When the fractious monks of the abbey rumoured to be the birthplace of the gods begin warring over claims of a new pantheon arising, the frantic abbot summons him to settle the dispute.
But Estevar has his own problems: a near-fatal sword wound from his last judicial duel, a sworn knight who claims he has proof the monks are consorting with demons, a diabolical inquisitor with no love for the Greatcoats, and a mysterious young woman claiming to be Estevar’s ally but who may well be his deadliest enemy.
Armed only with his famed investigative talents, his faltering skill with a blade and Imperious, his ornery mule, Estevar must root out the source of the madness lurking inside the once-sacred walls of Isola Sombra before its chaos spreads to the country he’s sworn to protect.
Investigate alongside Estevar and the most heroic mule ever to appear in print in this thrilling swashbuckling fantasy mystery by Sebastien de Castell, author of the Internationally acclaimed Greatcoats and Spellslinger series!
Hello again dear reader or listener, this is my 50th post with FanFiAddict! It is only fitting then that it would be reserved for one of my all-time favorite authors.
For those who haven’t followed my ramblings in the past, you must know that De Castell is one of my auto buys – that means I don’t even bother reading the blurb before preordering a copy of whatever he’s got in store for us next. I just know he will deliver top tier character work, peak humor, swashbuckling shenanigans, and immersive worldbuilding. And he did it again – how unexpected!
Other than a Masterclass in creative and devastating insults, Crucible of Chaos is the prelude to De Castell’s upcoming series, A Court of Shadows, set once again in the Greatcoats universe, and oh how I’d missed Tristia and its mottled mix of travelling magistrates. Truly dear reader, I can’t even begin to explain to you what the original tetralogy means to me so I won’t try it now. Suffice it to say that this standalone mystery thriller works as an excellent bridge between what came before and what is yet to entertain and possibly hurt us. I for one am dying to see what the author has planned, starting this March. My Arc of Play of Shadows is singing its siren song from my Kindle every time I glance at it but alas, I have other things that need completing first. Adulting smh…
Now then, you don’t need to have read The Greatcoats in order to enjoy this book even though there can be some big spoilers about the ending of that series so, while I do heartily recommend reading this, unless you don’t mind knowing some of the finale, proceed with caution. Because I have such an emotional connection to the original trio and their story, it’s a little hard for me to try and separate this book from the parent series not gonna lie, but I will do my best.
Bringing together elements reminiscent of The Name of the Rose, Don Quixote, and the darkest of the Sherlock Holmes tales, De Castell presents the reader with a dark mystery which very much embodies the aphorism ‘The road to Hell is paved with good intentions’. And where one very tired and battered man needs to solve the crimes holding the monastery of Isola Sombra hostage, before something worse comes to pass.
I will admit to feeling a momentary teeny tiny doubt that while I would definitely enjoy this new Greatcoat, maybe I would not end up loving him as much as I had with Falcio, Kest, and Brasti previously, but I am very pleased to have been wrong. Estevar Valejan Duerisi Borros with his portentous presence, self-aware vanity, and flair for the dramatic that seems to be a staple if not almost a prerequisite of being one of the king’s travelling magistrates, easily made his way to a spot near my heart. If you asked me to specify though I would be hard pressed to exactly pinpoint what exactly did it for me. He’s just too much of a mix of chivalrous, smart, very done with everything, curious, judicious, petty, nurturing, and snarky. Also he oils his beard and talks to his mule as if he were a human companion.
You see, De Castell has this frankly extremely rude habit of getting you to deeply and unavoidably care about his characters even if they’ve barely been on the page for a few chapters. Within only one book I found myself caring as much for Estevar and Caeda as for characters who have had entire trilogies to establish themselves. One of the main reasons I run to this author’s work is his artistry at writing a bromance – few do it like him – but when I say he got me by the acquired parental figure feels and wouldn’t let me go with this one.
I’m fine really. Father figures aren’t a weakness or anything… nope. But yeah, the speed with which I got invested should be illegal.
One of the things that keeps me inescapably hooked to this world, aside from the extensive world building, awesome magic system, and riveting action, is the character work. Especially when it comes to the magistrates, while each is an individual with their strong and varied personalities, they all share what some would call almost idiotic idealism; with a strong sense of justice and wanting to bring order and the law where it is most needed. But they do so in a manner that is without tyrannical superiority but in a way that rather fights to involve everyone, in order to encourage and make them feel a part of the system. I am probably butchering what is a very nuanced and pretty darn awesome ideology that exists throughout these books, but yeah. It’s damn inspiring in ways you don’t even anticipate. They nurture justice and doing the right thing, would be another way to describe it, even when there isn’t a single odd in their favor.
Just a bunch of idealistic and stubborn people driven by something stronger than even they can define. Also, spite. They are so strongly driven by spite it is poetry.
The only thing that didn’t quite land with this book for me was the pace and narrative style at times. De Castell went a mite heavy on this one, I have to admit, and not because of any over expositing or anything of the sort. The best way I can convey it is to compare it with the internal monologue scenes in Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies. Whenever Sherlock is planning out the fight sequence, or his final wrap up monologues that he explains everything. Estevar’s internal monologue and then his big speeches are essentially the same, and while it can be fun and fit the narrative well – especially as he is effectively training Caeda so she can assist him better – it does weigh the pace of the storytelling down when done for an extensive period of time throughout the novel.
That ultimately made this a slow read for me at least for most of the book, but I didn’t mind too much either. Once the 80% mark hits, things speed up to wrap up into an action filled and satisfying conclusion that has me very intrigued and excited for what is to come with Play of Shadows! The wider mythology present within makes for endless discussion options too and I have many theories.
Special mention goes of course to trusty yet cantankerous animal companion, Imperious the mule. Correction, the Greatmule. Having worked with mules before I can also attest to the accuracy of his portrayal.
Now excuse me, dear reader or listener, while I go and fight the physical urge to abandon everything else I am supposed to be doing and go back to reread the og tetralogy that lives rent free in my mind.
Until next time,
Eleni A. E.
P.S: Among the links above I’ve also put the special edition by The Broken Binding because that is a thing of absolute beauty. Between the sprayed edges and the gold foil on the naked hardback, it is chef’s kiss I can guarantee it! The dustjacked is also matte to the touch!