Crucible of Chaos by Sebastien de Castell fantasy book reviewsCrucible of Chaos by Sebastien de Castell fantasy book reviewsCrucible of Chaos by Sebastien de Castell

Estevar hauled up on his mule as Castle Aramor came into view through the dampening fog. The mule turned back with a baleful look.

“I know, I know. Do you think I’m enjoying this foul weather any more than you are?”

The mule dipped its head and turned it slightly aslant, looking upward at Estevar, as if to note that while they both shared the same weather, only one of them had the other’s weight as additional burden. A substantial weight at that Estevar had to acknowledge.

“Yes, Yes. Let me just marshal my thoughts a bit. I’m going to need to tell this right to the First Cantor elsewise she’ll have my sword, my coat, and possibly my head. And then where will you be?”

The mule swung its head back around toward the castle and let out a grunt, which Estevar took as a vocal shrug of indifference.

“Oh, you may think things can’t get worse for you. Believe me when I, Estevar Valejan Duerisi Borros also called the King’s Crucible, tell you that things can always get worse.”

And with that came a clap of thunder, followed by the first fall of rain. The mule glared.

“This is no fault of mine, save the burden of always being right, my friend.”

Imperius snorted and began to trudge down the road.

“Wait, wait, I said! We have to get our story straight!” The mule gave no indication it heard him. Nor did it pay him any mind when he tugged on the reins. Estevar sighed and let them fall. “Fine. It’s true that I can think just as easily as we (another snort) you walk. A poor traveling magistrate and Greatcoat I’d be otherwise. Right. How to begin this tale?”

The mule flicked an ear.

“Well yes, one might begin at the beginning. But that would mean telling our young First Cantor how I’d allowed myself to be lured into an unnecessary duel, gotten badly wounded and then fevered, and then rushed into investigating rumors of foul rituals and crimes amongst the monks at the abbey at Isola Sombra without due preparation. I’m not sure however that such details would further enlighten our Cantor. They may in fact only distract her from the far more important issues.”

Estevar took the mule’s steady gait as encouragement. “Indeed, that’s likely the case. We’re in agreement then. She need not hear all that until later, if even then. For in a world of cause and effect, who can truly say where the beginning of anything lies?” Imperious grunted.

“Do not scoff at self-rationalization my damp-furred friend. It is how we humans get through most of our days. So yes, we can dispense with my earlier, erm, unfortunate missteps, and start with my discovery that murder had indeed entered that holy place. I had no choice therefore but to uncover the murderer and learn what had caused the monks to descend into madness and chaos, splitting into three factions each bent on killing the others. The task called for a sharp mind and luckily, mine is even sharper than my rapier’s end. It did not take me long—”

Imperious stopped abruptly.

“It did not take me too long for—”

The mule did not move.

“I was getting to that, wasn’t I? It did not take me too long, with the help of young Caeda—”

Imperious began a steady plod again.

“To solve the murder. And Caeda will help us again on our arrival my nagging nag. For if I am to get back into the good graces of the First Cantor, I am the first to ruefully admit my own nature, lacking perhaps the humor and, say, appealing boisterousness of some of my fellow Greatcoats (that notorious trio of Falcio, Brasti, and Kest springs to mind), a personality based more in cool logic and skepticism mixed with an almost obsessive curiosity and a dollop of, yes, arrogance—”

Estevar felt a rough jolt as Imperious bucked.

“All right, perhaps more than a dollop. In any case, I may not win over an audience, but young Caeda with her youth, sprightly nature, and natural innocence can’t help but charm our own youthful First Cantor, who shares with her as well the misfortune of finding oneself unexpectedly cast from one life into another, beset from without by villains on all sides and from within by personal sorrow, and thus needing a quick mind and even faster sword to save her from—”

Estevar at first thought the rain had picked up, then realized what he was hearing was the steady stream of urine emanating from the mule beneath him.

“I did not name myself nor imply that I alone—” The already impressive jet of liquid managed to increase in volume. “Fine. Your liquid criticism has made its point. I acknowledge a mutual saving of lives. More than acknowledge in fact. This will play well with Chalmers. I, Estevar Valejan Duerisi Borros, wounded nigh unto death, fevered as a wildfire, throwing myself against crazed monks and horrible demons is exciting enough, but then having to be saved by a wisp of a girl—”

Imperious turned back to look at Estevar.

“Yes, yes, but we can’t reveal that to the First Cantor right away. We will hold off on the revelation regarding young Caeda so as to keep Chalmers rapt in our tale until the moment is ripe to stun her with the truth, which I of course knew right away—”

Imperious swung back to face forward again, but not before letting loose with a snort from each end of his body, one of which rose like a festering cloud round Estevar’s head. Estevar flapped his hand before his face.

“Foul creature! A simple kick of your heels would not have sufficed?! Yes, yes, perhaps I did not see right away what was eventually revealed. Remember, I was fevered and wounded, my mind more sluggish than is usual. In any case, I think we are set with a tale indeed that will win over even the irascible First Cantor. A story begun in murder and madness, a story of old gods killed and new gods to take their place. Of dark rituals, supernatural monsters, and the ever-present evil of human deceit and ambition. A grim container indeed, but one that also holds within it daring feats of courage—

Imperious’ ears both rose.

“Yes, also by you my fierce companion. Feats of courage, desperate battles and even more desperate bluffs, the light of youth, the flame of love, and even the possibility of redemption. I will tell this tale forthrightly and in few but vital words—”

The mule brayed loudly.

“In perhaps a few too many but mostly vital words so that the First Cantor will, rather than upbraid me for an old man’s foolishness and bravado, will instead smile, take a sip of her wine, and say, ‘That was some story. Frightening. Exciting. Saddening. Inspiring. And like your name, a few too many words. But then, you wouldn’t be Estevar Valejan Duerisi Borros, otherwise, would you? Get some rest, King’s Crucible. For you and your mule.’

And with that, Imperious gathered himself, then shot off at a gallop.

(With apologies, as always, to the author, who has remained nothing but a good sport throughout these reviews. A few extra notes that did not fit in the above mode. While some knowledge of the early GREATCOATS books will flesh out the backstory, Crucible of Chaos works perfectly fine as a standalone work in this world, and any of the minimal information that is necessary from those prior books is smoothly and concisely conveyed early on. That said, you should absolutely read those earlier books because they’re a joy. Those familiar with them already will find Crucible of Chaos less rollicking humorous and lacking in that wonderful banter; it is instead more akin to the collection of short stories, several of which have Estevar as a main character.)

Published December in 2023. 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.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.