The intital entry in a series of novels about the port city of Crosspointe, The Cipher also works completely as a stand-alone book.
Lucy Trenton, a customs official
and distant cousin of the king - she calls him "Cousin William" is a loyal servant of the crown.
Still, although she thinks of herself as a law-abiding citizen and looks down on
anyone who dares to bend the rules, she has a few secrets, too: since childhood, she has been able to sense majick. The only one who believed her was a mysterious stranger who scared her thoroughly. After that, she stopped telling anyone about her ability. She also collects Ciphers, majickal devices created centuries ago by an extremely powerful majickar called Errol Cipher. Touching one of them would
result in the device attaching itself to the person and trying to kill him or her.
Ergo, the law requires everyone to turn the Ciphers over to the crown, but Lucy stores seven of them in a vault under her house.
Lucy returns by sea to Crosspointe in a middle of a huge storm. When ships start to crash, she has to take control of the salvage operation
as the ranking customs officer. This also means also taking care of sailors who
are swept overboard and come into contact with sylveth. Sylveth is Crosspointe's
blessing and curse, by itself majickal and used to craft majickal items. Unchecked, sylveth
can change any living thing it touches into monsters. The changed sailors want to infect others, and so a select number of people, led by Lucy, have to kill the former humans.
This is only the beginning of Lucy's nightmare. She finds another Cipher, and this time it attaches itself to her. She cannot get it off, and nobody else can see it. She
must continue her life knowing that she is doomed.
Soon a blackmailer sends her a letter. Lucy does not want to give in to him, even though the blackmailer threatens to expose her Cipher collection,
which would also reflect poorly on the king and her family. When a valuable piece of bloodoak goes missing during the salvage, the owners blame Lucy. Lucy's superior has no choice but to suspend her.
Lucy's mother, meanwhile, is trying to arrange for her daughter to marry, preferably a rich man with a good standing in the society.
Unwilling and partly to spite her mother, Lucy arranges a date with a captain who is rumored to
both gamble and smuggle. Lucy is also attracted to the Captain, Marten Thorpe. Unfortunately, Marten
has made a bet that he can get something from Lucy, something which could ruin her career forever.
Lucy is a likable point-of-view character, independent but clearly part of a large family
who has to think of others over herself. Marten, the second point-of-view character, is a gambler and a scoundrel who does not realize the consequences of his actions until it is too late. On the other hand, he is also loyal to a fault and when he does realize what he has done, he tries to make up for it. The characters are well-made even if none of them are especially memorable. Lucy's family and servants are likable enough, and Lucy has complex relationships with them, especially with her
members of her family members. Her best friend, Sarah Nettles, is a shopkeeper
to whom Lucy first goes to talk about her problems.
The world of Crosspointe is intriguing but not medieval: it has newspapers, and women seem to be as independent as men. On the other hand, many people live in poverty, and
although Lucy and her family have servants to wait on them, Lucy does not seem to be especially wealthy. For once, I would have liked to see the world described
in more detail, hooked by tantalizing words for objects like "footspider", the cart that people use to go from one place to another inside the city, which
is not described.
The first chapter of The Cipher can be read
at Francis' website.