The Shadow Crucible by TM Lakomy

I received a review copy of The Shadow Crucible in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank T.M. Lakomy and Select Books Inc. for this opportunity.  

This novel was influenced by the scriptures found within the Nag Hammadi scrolls which were written sometime between the 2nd and 3rd-century A.D. and resurfaced about 65-years-ago. Lakomy's stunning debut is a complex adult fantasy epic set mainly in an alternative medieval London that reeks shadowy imagery and environments reminiscent of Penny Dreadful. For the majority this narrative follows two key players who are pawns in a greater game of which they do not yet comprehend. Firstly, the orphan-protecting, demon-tormented seer, Estella; who has been blessed with the gift of sight, and can often unwillingly see into Heaven itself. Secondly, Count Mikhael, a mind-reading Templar who enforces religious viewpoints and actions even though he also sees the spirits and grotesque beings that frequent beneath the radars of most individuals existence.

This story is unlike anything I have ever read before but unintentionally mixes a large amount of my favourite book-reading elements. My most accurate analysis would be as follows: Stunning complex historical fantasy, with the imagery and mythology of the world's greatest Epics, the gritty violence and tortuous nature of the most brutal grimdark, and the picturesque language and poetic prose that I envisage Oscar Wilde would have been proud of.

It commences at a steady pace for the first few chapters heightening an intense, dark, claustrophobic atmosphere. During these scenes, a despondent demon-littered London is presented, as is the initial meeting between Estella and Mikhael. Following the introductions, the world-building is then heightened, projecting the larger environment including the details of the monarchy and the often corrupt politics. There is a lot of corruption here and at the same time, Paradise Lost-esque angels and demons are all around. I loved the slow-burning to intense nature of the build up. By page 80 I was bewitched and under Lakomy's hypnotic spell.

Many religious and mythological heavyweights play an important part in this narrative. Including, but not restricted to Lucifer, Christ, Samuel, Merlin, just to name a few. I analysed that some traditional fantasy readers may not enjoy reading about entities they are familiar with as perhaps they like to lose themselves in a new or alien world. This wasn't an issue for me as most fantasy book Gods and religions are closely based on the stories from our world anyway just with alternate or obscure names.

In addition to the two unfortunate aforementioned pawns in the chess match of the Gods, the side characters are just as deep and complex. Some I wished we could have seen more of but perhaps limited 'screen-time' made them so intriguing. My favourites to read about were fallen angel Antariel who is actually based on a real-life personal demon as well as the horrid, grotesque, sadistic Cardinal Pious who instructs torturers to cut out innocent individual's eyes, and even the ambivalent Lucifer.

This tale is not as full-throttle action based as some modern fantasy, however; when these scenes are unleashed it truly is edge-of-the-seat-I-think-my-hat-might-fall-off-action. These scenes might actually leave casual readers confused and dizzy but they are extreme emotion heightening segments. Floating between Earth and Heaven and Hell is a veil known as the Twilit world where the Elder God's live, who no longer wish to battle against petty Gods and Lords. The world here is dream-like, not fully created reflecting the fact God rested on the 7th-day. The poetry, characters, and tone here are unique compared to what is used to describe the war between humans and the religious entities. The language and writing are exquisite and beautiful which led me to the Epic's comparisons. It's intriguing and it's never obvious what the next chapter will present. Dream-like? Action? Torture? Politics? 

To certain people, this debut could appear as gnostic heresy. If you are highly sensitive or super religious then do not read this. Throughout, the characters are stunning, deep, and complex. To the extent where out of Jesus, Lucifer, and The Blind God it is arguable who is the most righteous and who is ultimately utter evil. Undertones and subtext relate to blind faith, salvation, religious propaganda and how the winners write the histories that follow.

The world building is brilliant especially in London and in Twilit. Often the set-pieces are utterly unique and stunning. The final sequence is reminiscent of the horrors presented within Dante's Inferno. The dream-like sequences. Also the above-mentioned scenes of torture and sexual debauchery from the cardinal. The latter reminded me of Glotka from The First Law but without any of the awkward charm. The finale is stunning and unique as well as pretty upsetting. It is ultimately complete and highly poetic. This is the first book in a proposed trilogy and the culmination is perfect for what may happen next. I imagine the sequel will be 25 years later. The sides will be set. Angels have turned their backs on God, religious people have seen more than they should, the pieces on the chessboard are aligned and it may equal a world destroying confrontation. The story seems brilliantly well researched. I would have liked to have seen more of Estella's magical potential as her capabilities seem terrifying which leads to her being sought by almost all (angels, demons, Templars... all but Jesus hmmm). Estella is the strongest female protagonist I've read about in a long time which is heightened in this setting where to the religious, women were often seen as less than dirt. Brilliant book. Dark and beautiful. Some readers who wish to utterly lose themselves in a unique, different fantasy world may not like it though as a lot of what happens here is perhaps scarily believable and familiar. To anyone who follows my reviews, you know I've read almost all the top debuts this year. Well, for me, this is tied first place with McDonald's Blackwing which speaks volumes.

9/10 Brilliant book. Dark and beautiful.

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