Wednesday, 18 July 2018

City of Lies by Sam Hawke

City of Lies by Sam Hawke is a debut novel and the first in a new fantasy series by the Australian author. I picked it up mainly for its Australian-ness: to show support and because I’ve historically enjoyed many big fat fantasy (BFF) books written by Australian women.

Jovan wears two faces. Outwardly, he is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible Heir. Quiet. Forgettable. In secret, Jovan is a master of poisons and chemicals, trained to protect the Chancellor’s family from treachery.

His sister, Kalina, hides her frustrations behind a mask of calm. While other women of the city hold positions of power and responsibility, her own path is one of secrets and lies— hidden even from her own brother.

When the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and a revolutionary army lays siege to the city, Jovan and Kalina’s structured world unravels. Trapped and desperate, they soon discover their civilized country also has two faces; behind the beauty and sophistication is an ugly past built on oppression and treachery…

City of Lies takes place in a capital city that sits in the middle of the country, surrounded by estates with farms and a few other cities closer to the foreign borders. The city is run by a chancellor and a council and out protagonists are the legal children (actually nephew and niece) of the Chancellor’s most trusted advisor. The story is told through their (first person) points of view in alternating chapters.

Jovan is the closest friend, advisor and protector of the Chancellor’s heir. His main ancestral job is to check the heir’s food for poison. Not because he’s a disposable food taster, but because he’s been trained to detect poison in even small amounts of food and is immune (or at least resistant to) many poisons, and always has antidotes on hand. Coincidentally, he also has something like OCD (it’s not named in the context of the fantasy world), which stops some people from taking him seriously and, to some degree, hampers his political career. It’s also just something he has to work around. From his point of view we see a lot of the inner politics and problems of the city, as he sticks pretty close to Tain, the heir.

Jovan’s sister, Kalina, is the other point of view character. Having been barred from the family profession due to ill health (in this fantasy world where men and women are treated equally), Kalina still finds ways to help her brother and Tain. Most people dismiss her because they see her as physically weak and hence consequential, but she’s smart and has hidden reserves of determination that not even her brother realised were there. Kalina is written as a very convincing example of chronic illness and the way it’s perceived and engaged with by society. She comes from a privileged family, so has the benefit of the best available medical care (in a pre-industrial society) but still has to contend with people underestimating her. Basically, not only is she a well written character but she kicks arse (but not literally) and I really enjoyed reading the story from her point of view. I highly recommend this book for the disability/chronic illness representation alone.

Of course, there’s more to City of Lies than just good characterisation. The story itself is gripping and kept me interested the whole way. It opens with poisoning throwing the young main characters (who I guessed to be in their 20s maybe?) into the spotlight and positions of power and quickly moves on to a siege of the city. As well as the practical wartime concerns of defence and food distribution, the traitor in their midst hangs over their heads, lowering their trust in everyone else.

I have to say, I was impressed with how this book didn’t drop too many hints as to the source of the treachery. I didn’t see the reveal coming, which is unusual for me these days. And the answer to the question of why the city was being attacked was meted out gradually so that we didn’t understand the whole picture until near the very end of the book. I found it an effective way to keep my interest up through this long tome. (All those short stories I’ve been reading just emphasised the length of this novel, lol.)

This was an excellent read and I highly recommend it to fans of fantasy (especially BFF) and to specific fans who are interested in seeing a society with gender equality with some disability/chronic illness representation thrown into the mix. (Note that the society is, of course, not perfect. If nothing else, there has to be a reason for the war at the heart of the plot.) I’m told there’s a sequel coming, and I look forward to reading more about these characters. On the other hand, the story in this first book is self-contained with no cliffhangers at the end. The overarching problems aren’t resolved at the end, but most of the open plot threads are tied up, making me keen, but not desperate, for the next book.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: July 2018, Tor (US) and August 2018, Transworld/Penguin Random House (UKANZ)
Series: Yes. Book 1 of Poison Wars series
Format read: ePub ARC
Source: (US) publisher via NetGalley

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