Voracious reader and DPhil candidate blogs about books and scholarly life.
The Fifth Vertex
Okay, I needed to look this up: a vertex is a corner point, of a pentagon for instance, as is the case in this novel. No, I don’t think it is a bad thing to have a title that is not immediately understood – how many people knew what ‘hallows’ were before Harry Potter 7 was released?
With such a title, one may expect that The Fifth Vertex is a science fiction story; after reading the blurb, one will expect fantasy. What makes this novel refreshing is its blend of fantasy and steampunk, with just enough science fiction added to the equation to make the magic in the book more interesting and thought through than the standard fantasy magic.
The first protagonist the reader meets is Urus, a young man on the edge of adulthood, who failed the initiation test to be admitted as a worthy member of society in the city of Kest. We aren’t told what this test entails exactly, other than that it involves fighting. He is therefore going to be ‘culled’ in a grand ceremony, and he cannot live with the idea of such a humiliation. Intending to kill himself by jumping off a building, he discovers his magical abilities at a very convenient moment, because the fall does not even injure him.
The second perspective offered is that of Cailix, an orphan girl who works as a servant in a monastery. When the monks are all slaughtered by the blood mage Anderis, who is looking for the map showing the locations of the five vertices, she discovers the sight of blood makes her wild with excitement. Anderis sees this and realises Cailix must be a blood mage, too. Yes, Cailix is quite a creepy girl, especially when we realise how young she must be – too young to be sold as a whore, Anderis points out.
Two stories of underdogs who discover their magical powers: it is a story we have heard many times before. However, Hoffman manages to give an original twist to this standard idea. First of all, Cailix seems to have led a pretty decent life in spite of her poverty and solitude. Hoffman repeatedly points out that she has always had to fend for herself, but if the murder of the monks is the first time she sees a significant amount of blood up close, her life can’t have been all bad.
Secondly, Urus is born deaf, and for the most part, this seems to be a positive asset. The only one who has a genuine problem with it is his deranged, abusive father. Yes, he fails one of the initiation tests because it involved blindfolded fighting, but he flunks all the others because his personality simply isn’t inclined to violence. Meanwhile, Kest and its surrounding civilisations have developed a sign language lingua franca for trade purposes, and Urus is a talented interpreter. It is in doing magic, however, that his sign language skills are the most useful. As in many fantasy stories where no wands are used, magic is conjured through moving one’s hands in the air – magic is actually a sign language. It makes so much sense.
There are a few explanations missing in both Urus’s and Cailix’s storylines, however. His magical abilities make Urus a sigilord, someone with very powerful blood. The blood mages have previously wiped out all the sigilords in a massive genocide in order to obtain their blood. However, why did the mages not simply keep the siligords chained up with a drain in their arm, like they do with horseshoe crabs these days, in order to ensure a more steady supply of blood? And as for Cailix, when she is captured she needs to wriggle around in her bonds to bite in her arm, to get blood so she can do magic. Why doesn’t she simply bite her tongue or lips? (Also, this ability would allow for very interesting period jokes. Perhaps in the sequel…)
Finally, I must make a nasty remark about the cover. When I first saw it, I liked it. The way the figures are sketched is a relief compared to the many sleek, photoshopped covers of YA novels these days. However, when I had read the book and looked at the cover again, I felt disturbed. The cover shows three people who clearly are supposed to be Urus, his friend Goodwyn, and Cailix – and all three of them look light-skinned. In the book, only Cailix is light-skinned, the other two are dark. A very painful mistake on the illustrator’s part.
All in all, I recommend this book. It is a refreshing addition to the genre. I judge the cover, but I like the contents.
[I received an advance reading copy of this novel through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]