City of Lies by Sam Hawke. ★★★★
City of Lies will likely be one of my top debut novels of 2018. It’s an incredibly well written fantasy novel that has everything I love about fantasy and also feels like a breath of fresh air. The comparisons to Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik are not off base… but I think I actually prefer City of Lies.
Jovan and Kalina’s family has a duty: to protect the Chancellor and his heir from death by poison. Their uncle is the Chancellor’s food tester and master of poisons, and he’s training Jovan to follow in his footsteps. This training is expected to continue for years to come… but then both the Chancellor and their uncle dies by a mysterious poison. The Chancellor’s heir (and Jovan and Kalina’s close friend) is now a potential target for whoever murdered their uncle. They’ve only begun to search for the poisoner when things get worse in a way none of them expected: an army shows up at the city gate, and they are promptly under siege. With their city’s own army away and communication difficult to impossible, there is no rescue in sight. Jovan and Kalina will have to save not only the Heir and themselves but also their entire city.
Before I get down to the nitty gritty, I need to gush about how addicting this book was. It was just so good! I stayed up to nearly midnight when I had to wake up at 6 AM the next morning. I kept promising myself, “Just one more chapter,” and before I knew it, I’d gone and read the entire book. If you can’t tell from that, the pacing is great. And I guess I didn’t read the synopsis closely enough because I didn’t even know about the siege going in? When the army showed up, I was thrown for a loop in the most wonderful way. This book can get really intense!
City of Lies also shakes up the genre in some great ways. To start with, while I’ve read plenty of fantasy books about assassins, I’ve never read a book with a protagonist who’s job is to guard against assassins. Well, at least not from the perspective of a food tester and poison master. There’s a lot of other fantastic, new, and vital things going on with this book from characters to world, but more on that later. I also want to talk about how City of Lies weaves together its plots so well! You’ve got the murder mystery of who killed the Chancellor, and you think that’s going to be the sole focus of the story when BAM they’re under siege! It’s like murder mystery + political intrigue + epic fantasy, and I love every bit of it.
In the synopsis, I mention that Jovan is being trained as the new poison master. Well, before he started his training, his uncle tried to train Kalina. As the older sibling, she was first in line for the family duty, but her poor health meant that her life was in danger whenever she tried taking the small amounts of poison necessary to build up immunity. She knows she can’t take on the family responsibility… but she also feels like she’s overlooked and that people treat her like she’s inconsequential and doubt her abilities due to her chronic illness. To some extent, she’s turned this in her favor, becoming a spy master to secretly protect and serve the Chancellor and his heir.
I really loved Kalina. When I was first considering picking up City of Lies, my big hesitation was that it would be a dude fantasy. You know, those fantasy books where the only woman of note is the girlfriend and she doesn’t do a whole lot, even if we’re told she’s badass. City of Lies wasn’t that. Kalina was just as much a protagonist as her brother. I also loved that she wasn’t the usual sort of heroine. I don’t think I’ve ever before read about a fantasy heroine with chronic illness, and I love that City of Lies allows her to take center stage and be an incredibly brave, smart and determined heroine.
Speaking of disability representation, Jovan is also disabled. He has an anxiety disorder that read to me as OCD, although since this is a second-world fantasy, it’s never named. I’ve got general anxiety, not OCD, but some of his experiences felt familiar. I could go off on a whole rant about how fantasy and science fiction doesn’t have nearly enough characters with mental illness, but I’ll save it for later. Suffice to say, I’m very glad to have Jovan (and Kalina) as protagonists.
City of Lies has fantastic world building. If you know me, you know I love great world building in my fantasy books. The city-state the story’s set in feels distinctly non-Western, although I can’t pinpoint any specific influences. It also isn’t a culture that honors violence or is really centered around warfare, which is another aspect that can be unusual in fantasy (or maybe I’ve just read too much grimdark). Jovan and Kalina’s culture also is egalitarian and matrilineal. Marriage is an unfamiliar concept, and women define the family. Jovan and Kalina’s mother caused a scandal by abandoning her family and running away with a man. It’s a bit of background information that doesn’t actually play into the larger story, but it shows you the cultural norms. Oh, and there isn’t any sexism or homophobia either. The protagonists are all straight (or at least aren’t explicitly shown to be anything other than heterosexual), but there’s enough background same-sex couples for it to be clear that it’s not a big deal in this world.
The city is wealthy off of trade, and they’ve grown out of touch with the surrounding countryside… which appears to be where the army at the gates is from. There’s obviously a reason for that, and I won’t say too much more on it. This is also one of those fantasy books where the protagonists don’t think magic is real, that it’s just a myth from history. Meanwhile, you the reader are sitting there rubbing your hands, knowing they’ve got a huge surprise coming for them…
City of Lies is also pretty low on romance, another reason it’s a good story for me. Not that there wasn’t romance — there was, but the most important relationships in the story tended to be platonic. I didn’t care much for the romance that was there, but that’s probably just a me thing. Anyway, they were both minor subplots so it wasn’t much of an annoyance.
If I have one complaint, it’s that Jovan and Kalina’s voices could sound similar. City of Lies is told in alternating chapters of first person narration. Sometimes I could get confused about whether was reading Jovan or Kalina, as their voices weren’t distinctive. This feels like a problem I’ve seen a lot with debut novels using multiple first person narrators. It’s hard to create a distinctive voice, and City of Lies doesn’t manage it. It might have helped if the story was written in third person instead.
But overall, I’m really hoping there’s sequels! So go out and get yourself copies so that Tor buys more books from Sam Hawke! If your tastes are similar to mine, you won’t be disappointed.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.