This week, I’m reviewing The Crimson Script, a magic tinged, gunpowder fuelled tale of resistance from S. J. Hull. This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which was provided by the author.
The city of Abys-Luthil is a hotbed of criminal activity, with gangs of outlaws stalking the streets and poverty rife. Crusading against those who would exploit the populace is the masked figure of Lyra Alpheri, daughter of revered public speaker and magister Maellon Alpheri. With the help of her friend Kat and master artificer Virgil, Lyra is able to live the double life of vigilante and noblewoman. But the growing unrest in the city threatens her existence, and soon Lyra is forced into a desperate struggle against forces more powerful than she could possibly have anticipated.
That friendship with Kat is an integral part of the story; as Lyra finds her hands increasingly bloodied from the havoc she wreaks, it’s Kat that she can rely on for support. She’s nothing so mundanely obvious as a moral compass, being a believably flawed and fallible human being herself, but she’s there for Lyra through the good times and the bad. Similarly, Virgil’s counsel is something Lyra can always rely on – despite his irritation with her when he finds she’s “borrowed” items from his armoury – and the three of them make for a formidable and likeable trio. Their relationship isn’t soft and fluffy, but they clearly all care for each other in a way that feels very natural.
Also along for the ride are Rillo and Aequo, stalwart veterans of the city’s Vox Militant. The pair have an easy camaraderie that makes dialogue between the two of them entertaining to read, with friendly jibes and war stories making their way into their exchanges in a way that feels entirely justified. They’re likeable enough to have more time than they get here, in fact, but an abundance of good characters can hardly be said to be a failing. Elsewhere, the character of Maellon Alpheri allows Hull the chance to put his money where his mouth is; so often a character is described as being some kind of amazing orator, only for their speeches to feel no more special than anyone else’s. Not so here – we’re told that Maellon is a great speaker and he actually is, his rousing and passionate rhetoric genuinely powerful and a joy to read.
In fact, what Maellon often speaks about is what makes The Crimson Script really stand out. He’s very concerned with freedom of speech and seeing things done in the proper, democratic way, making his beliefs and personal philosophy extremely pertinent to our current age of cancel culture and group-thinking factionalism. He makes it clear on a number of occasions that freedom of speech extends to even people you don’t agree with; not that contentious a point ten years ago or so, but one that social media seems to need reminding of all too frequently. Hull’s “reminder” here takes the form of an entertaining, pacy, action-packed fantasy with some surprisingly visceral combat, its central message clear without resorting to browbeating.
The city itself is packed with history, which we’re shown just enough of to pique our interest and get a sense of why certain things are important, without there being too much of an information overload. Abys-Luthil comes across as something of a melting pot of the classical world and a fantasy one, which makes it feel unique yet familiar at the same time, cultural touchstones and references to historical figures and events providing a framework for some of Hull’s more fantastical ideas. There’s a real sense of there being a big wide world outside of the city’s borders too, one that would no doubt be just as entertaining to uncover.
The Crimson Script is a lot of fun, and its strong messages and likeable characters mean it has more staying power than other, more throwaway fantasy titles. It will be interesting to see where things go, should a sequel be forthcoming (fingers crossed).