City of Lies
by Sam Hawke
This is Sam Hawke‘s debut fantasy novel and I must say I really enjoyed it. Sam has created a fantasy world with all the elements that I really like in the genre, while avoiding the ones that I’m sick of. It’s set in the city of Silasta, which is big, but not ridiculous fantasy big, and is told from the perspective of a brother and sister who are part of a family that has the job of protecting the ruler of the city, the Chancellor from poison attempts. The relationship between the siblings is complex and often strained because the eldest, Kalina should be heir apparent for the role, but her health was so badly damaged by the early ingestion of poison that is the first step in learning how to detect it that she could not continue the training. The role then fell to her bother Jovan who, despite being able to complete the training, is as hampered by anxiety and self doubt as his sister is by her shattered health. When their uncle, the current ‘Proofer’ and the Chancellor both fall victim to an unknown poison it falls to the siblings to find out how and who is responsible. The why reveals itself when outside forces lay siege to the city in the chaos that follows the Chancellor’s death. Poison, espionage, intrigue and betrayal, these are things that Kalina and Jovan have trained for since childhood, but with the city under siege and clues that make no sense that may not be enough.
There is a lot of great fantasy at the moment, but the things about this one that really stand out for me are where it deviates from the traditional tropes. To begin with, both the protagonists are imperfect, with Kalina’s poor health and fragility and Jovan’s crippling anxiety. Each of them have strategies to overcome or minimise this, but it never goes away and I like that they have to make decisions in the light of their own issues.
There’s also not a lot of magic, at least at the start, and what there is scares people. Again, I really like that people’s reaction to the idea and appearance of magic is disbelief and fear which means that even sparing uses in the story create a lot of drama.
It’s not set in a pseudo-Europe with a few name changes. This is a big one for me lately since I’m sick of fantasy worlds that all have the same social, domestic and political structures. This one has some very interesting ideas on family, kinship, gender roles and sexuality. They’re organic to the story and just a part of what’s going on and who the Silastans are and also make for some very cool plot opportunities.
The action scenes remind me a little of early Robin Hobb in that for her, intensity was function of characterisation rather than scale. The fights in City of Lies aren’t big, no vast armies and duels of mighty warriors, just a few desperate people on a wall who are terrified and fighting for their lives. And because the characters really convey the fear and the chaos it is really easy to get caught up in it.
Finally there are the two character perspectives, Kalina and Jovan. They mostly alternate in first-person chapters. I like them both and they’re distinct voices so the first person thing isn’t a problem and each brings something different to the book. I can’t help feeling that we get to know Jovan better though. But this is the first book in a series and there are hints towards the end that there is more to Kalina that we haven’t seen and a final scene that will make you desperate for book two (August 2019).
I wouldn’t go as far a calling this grimdark though there are a few nasty moments. It reminded me a bit of Robin Hobb‘s Farseer series and Alex Marshall‘s Crown for Cold Silver trilogy, though with its own take. Overall it’s a great read, debut or not, and I’ll be anxiously waiting for book two.