Sunday, January 11, 2009

Review – “The Black Ship” by Diana Pharaoh Francis

Welcome to Crosspointe, the hub of the Inland Sea, where gold runs like water, and the balance of politics shifts uneasily between the monarchy, the majicars, and the Merchants' Guild — a land where dangerous majick courses through the dark waters.

Thorn is a member of the Pilots' Guild, a group composed of those rare, brave souls who possess the magical ability to navigate Crosspointe's deadly seas. But his reason for living is ripped away when a malevolent master within the Guild betrays him and bans him from sailing. Then Thorn is kidnapped and forced to serve aboard a ship—unregistered, unmarked, and pitch-black from bow to stern.

The Eidolon is a cursed vessel, and Thorn finds himself battling a mad captain, a mutinous crew, and the terrifying magic of the sea. And soon a series of strange accidents suggests that there is a saboteur aboard, trying to make sure the Eidolon never arrives safely in port. Thorn begins to realize that his kidnapping may have been no mere chance—and that the cargo the black ship carries may seal his doom.
The Black Ship is the second book in the Crosspointe adventure fantasy series following The Cipher (Dec 2007). At the conclusion of The Cipher, the island of Crosspointe and the King had just been saved by Marten and Lucy from a secret invasion by the powerful Jutras, a warring nation, with a harsh culture bent on the subjugation of every nation within its reach, driven by angry gods demanding horrific blood sacrifice. Lucy and Marten had both been changed by sylveth, a majickal substance found in the inland sea capable of mutating living and inanimate objects on contact, with both gaining extraordinary majickal abilities. Unknown to all was the depth of the infiltration of the Crosspointe government and society by the agents of the Jutras.

In this second novel, the author takes us on a terrific high seas adventure the equal of any C.S. Forester swashbuckler. The tale is told from the perspective of Sylbac, a Pilot for the Guild that controls the commerce of Crosspointe. Only Pilots have the majickal ability needed to navigate the dangerous waters of the inland sea. Sylbac is a prickly individual, an outsider disliking his fellow Pilots and being shunned in turn. At a Guild meeting he observes –
He stared back, feeling malevolent. He refused to see the scars, the weariness, the lines of laughter in the weathered faces. He didn't want them to be people. Just cold, pretentious, power-bloated leeches, feeding on the desperate need of anyone in Crosspointe who lived or died by ship commerce.
The Black Ship becomes a voyage of personal discovery and rebirth for Sylbac. He is kidnapped and forced to join the crew of a secret ship that shouldn’t exist, carrying a treasonous cargo on a dubious mission. Sylbac decides to leave his old life behind changing his name to Thorn. His survival and future becomes entwined with that of the crew and captain, forcing him to difficult decisions including leaving behind his solitary mien, building new relationships and turning a mutinous crew and mad captain into a cohesive whole. But the obstacles are enormous and at one point he thinks -
In the last two months he'd lost his brother, lost his guild, lost his life. In the last few days, he'd gained a black ship with an insane captain, unknown enemies who were willing to kill to take the ship, a majicar shipowner with astonishing powers, and a bitter and divided crew with nearly a dozen wounded crewmen. How could he think the Eidolon was anything but a cursed ship?
The author subjects the voyagers to test after test with almost relentless pacing; treachery, storms, privation, majickal incursions and battles at sea are only a few of the highlights of the journey. The descriptions are vivid, the cast of primary and secondary characters, engaging and sincere. Each event serves to bind the crew closer and build their bond. In the latter part of the novel, Thorn and the crew of the Eidolon, encounter a pirated Jutra warship crewed by refugees escaping Jutra political and religious oppression. Out of necessity they join forces, but in a sequence that reminded me of Barry Longyear’s wonderful Nebula award-winning novella Enemy Mine, they learn that finding common ground with the enemy is more important than retaining old hatreds.

The purpose of the black ship and the nature of its mission become clear to Thorn and the captain towards the conclusion of the novel (sorry no spoilers) nicely setting the stage for the next instalment of the Crosspointe series – The Turning Tide. The romance of the sea is not the only romance in the The Black Ship as Thorn despite misgivings, finds a kindred spirit in the female captain of the Jutra warship, that unfortunately will require future instalments to evolve.

The Black Ship offers rich world-building, a highly original system of magic, and a rousing storyline. I liked Thorn and the crew of the Eidolon a lot and hope to see their return. The Black Ship is easily read and enjoyed as a standalone novel, but I encourage readers to start with The Cipher for the full picture and enjoyment of the Crosspointe universe.

Read an excerpt from Chapter 1.

Penguin Group (USA)
Published: November 2008
ISBN-13: 9780451462428
Format: Paperback
Pages: 416

Alternate Cover
(Artist - Paul Youll)
The Crosspointe Series:
  1. The Cipher (2007)
  2. The Black Ship (2008)
  3. The Turning Tide (May 5, 2009)
Original Artwork
(Artist - Paul Youll)

The Path Series:

  1. Path of Fate (2003)
  2. Path of Honor (2004)
  3. Path of Blood (2006)

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