Crucible of Chaos
By Sebastien De Castell
The locked room scenario is a classic of the crime genre and does not have to mean just a locked room but the idea of a contained place that holds all the victims, suspects, and clues within. A monastery perched atop a remote island only passable when the tide is low would be a perfect place for this time of mystery, but this is no human who has died, but the Gods themselves. Estevar Borros is a renowned Greatcoat magistrate tasked by the King to uncover what is going on at Isola Sombra, be it a very human killer, angry Gods, or a bunch of mad monks.
The omens are bad for Estevar even before he steps foot on Isola Sombra with his trusty steed, Imperious. They are washed way in a swell and only just saved by a passing Knight, who warns them to turn back. This may have been good advice as the various factions of monks have locked themselves away in different parts of the Monastery. Some to pray, some to preach, others to cavort. They have all gone mad because the Gods have been murdered and the corpse of the old Abbot is buried without a head each night, only to turn up the next morning out of its grave.
I have not read any of Sebastien De Castell’s Greatcoat novels, but Crucible of Chaos is sold as a prelude to these books and as a standalone. Having read it, it certainly works as its own entity, and I will look to read other books in the series. The story opens like a classic crime drama of the Golden Era. Think Agatha Christie, but with dark fantasy elements. Estevar is the type of typical eccentric investigator you would have seen in a Christie novel, overburdened by both weight and his sense of justice, he sees everything as righteous or wrong, a man willing to put the very Gods on trial if they are guilty.
Chaos opens in an enigmatic fashion. The reader is introduced to this strange investigator whose only companion is a moody mule. We hear hints about the existence and inhabitants of Isola Sombra, an island that once housed the Gods, but now appears to only home those few monks left behind to mourn the loss. Estevar does not just specialise in mysteries, but those with a supernatural edge, as a cynic he often finds that most crime is very human, but there is no denying some of the events on the island are not normal – sadistic demons are hard to explain away.
De Castell does a brilliant job of writing a piece of classic feeling crime fiction within a fantasy setting. We have a victim and several suspects. Estevar goes about questioning monks and investigating. As you would hope, several people may have committed the murder and there are plenty of red herrings. There is even a typical gathering of the suspects together to reveal the murderer, just this time there is an army of demons scratching at the door outside.
The book stands on its own and is a wonderful fantasy one hit, but you feel the world building of the previous titles within the way the story is told confidently. You feel there is a bigger story outside the walls of the monastery, but you do not need to know it to enjoy what is happening now. Estevar is the star of the story, but you also get a cast of great characters from his mule, the suspects and a helper who may just hide the clue to solving the crime. With the inclusion of cavorting demons and supple monks, the book may be a little off putting to the usual crime fan, but it is a strong enough mystery to appeal to any fan of locked room mysteries and any fan of lower or dark fantasy will enjoy it too.
Written on 13th December 2023 by Sam Tyler .