If a book is about poisons and food tasters, it’s a guaranteed buy for me, so when I read the first line of City of Lies I knew I was in for a treat. Poison is front and centre in Sam Hawke’s debut, but so is an extremely original look at the complexities of siege warfare, and the difficulties of governing a city filled with different religious beliefs.
Book: City of Lies by Sam Hawke
Read before: Only the first chapter, on Tor.com
Ownership: E-ARC provided by NetGalley for fair review; hardback on its way on release day
The two main characters of this book are Jovan, the taster for the Chancellor’s Heir, and Kalina, his sister, who failed her taster training due to a weak constitution. Their perspectives alternate for most of the book as they cope with: the poisoning of the Chancellor; the accession of their friend Tain, the Heir; a peasant army besieging the city; the rumbling discontent in the cornered city; and of course, their own personal issues with themselves, each other, and the roles they have been forced into.
I loved Jovan’s perspective, and I particularly liked the fact that the author noted and did justice to the main characters’ inexperience and youth. No-one expected Tain to need to become Chancellor so soon, and so neither he nor Jovan have fully mastered their arts. Watching them navigate the tasks they have to take on is made so much more tense by their awkwardness, and I think this was captured really nicely. Nobody expects a bunch of teenagers to make the right decisions all the time – they are stripped of basically all the adults they trust, and experience the same kind of panic many of us feel when we come across an issue, wish for an adult, and then realise, ‘oh wait, *I’m* an adult.’
Jovan has what he calls ‘compulsions’, which read to me as OCD traits – I can’t personally speak to how accurate the representation is, but to me the inclusion of this seemed consistent and natural. I liked that Tain and Kalina knew how to help Jovan when he had gotten inside his head – it worked to cement their relationships and was a lovely detail.
I took longer to warm to Kalina’s perspective, because the bookish bluestocking in the shadow of her more popular sibling is such an overdone trope. I could name you five I’ve read in the last two months. She’s also not quite as immersed in the action as Jovan is, so you have to wait for a while before she starts playing in the main game. I liked her very much by the end of the book, though I would have liked her to have a voice that was slightly more differentiated from Jovan’s, as I sometimes lost track of who was doing what.
I’ve never read a book before that was set entirely inside a besieged city, and I think this worked both for and against the plot. On the one hand, we had a really interesting mystery to solve along with Jovan and Kalina, but on the other hand, the complete lack of information on the attacking army’s reasoning meant that the first 25% or so of the book was very repetitive. Characters bumbled round in circles pondering their situation and patching up small problems, which I suppose is very realistic in an unexpected siege, but dragged somewhat in the telling. The second half of the book, after we learn what the siege is about, is a lot better-paced and more exciting than the first half.
A few world building notes:
- The plants and poisons were worked into the story very well, but I would have liked more time to be spent on the actual uses and effects of the poisons so that the reader had a better sense of how the antidotes worked. One plot line hinges on Jovan finding an antidote, and that was really fascinating – but what about the dangerous effects of the antidote itself? More of that would have been great! As I said in my review of These Rebel Waves, I’m just a big plant nerd.
- The main swear-word for 60% of the book is ‘Honor-Down’, which is somewhat explained by the obsession with honour as a concept (though it took a while for me to stop reading it with the same meaning as ‘I swear down’!). After this point, the characters seem to use ‘fuck’ interchangeably with ‘Honor-Down’, which I found super jarring. I have no problem with swearing in fantasy or YA, and no problem with made-up swears to get around it, but pick one and stick with it.
- Huge praise for writing a fantasy world in which zero sexual violence is necessary. It’s really appreciated, and it sucks that it’s so unusual.
One thing that I thought was interesting was the depiction of the Darfri religion, which is very much viewed by the city-dwellers as old and somewhat barbaric. It felt like, particularly with the events towards the end of the book, that the author wanted to prove to the reader that this was the ‘real’ religion, showing magic being done via Darfri rituals. I found this a little clumsy, to be honest, and more like the author had a point to prove, than being part of the plot itself. I would have preferred it if both sets of people, the religious and the non-religious, had just had to tolerate each other without knowing if any way of life is more correct than another.
I feel like I’m being very critical of this book, but I did very much enjoy it. All the points I’m raising are very minor, and this is a stellar debut with some really brilliant world-building. I’m excited for the next book, which I’m hoping will focus on the rebuilding of the city and its government, and think that Sam Hawke is definitely an author to watch! Four out of five cats!