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City of Lies (Poison Wars, #1) by Sam Hawke

City of Lies (Poison Wars, #1)

by Sam Hawke

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Originally posted on Tales to Tide You Over

This novel offers a rich world, strong story, and characters who are complicated in all the right ways. I did have a few issues with the narrative, but the majority of them were that I’m too quick to pick up on plot seeding. The characters’ mention of, or realization of, the seed came late enough for me to believe the seeding hadn’t been used. Ultimately, though, most of the seeds were either explained or critical to the later plot, and sometimes even in ways I had not anticipated.

The dual first-person narrative offered standard issues with gender and names coming late for me, but the personalities grew from the start. They both showed tangible character growth as they (and Tain) underwent a rapid, event-driven change from child to adult. I did have trouble telling which of the two were speaking at times, but they are each named in the chapter headers. I just tend not to read headers.

I liked how Joven and Kalina, the point-of-view characters, had real physical and mental challenges they struggled with. While some of those limitations turned out to benefit them in very specific circumstances, they did not miraculously overcome their limitations in order to fulfill their roles in the story. Instead, they worked around the issues, were sidelined by them, or had to recognize what paths could never be open to them. It’s a more realistic presentation of disability than most.

The cultural elements and philosophies spouted by the various groups were fascinating, even though, and sometimes because, the characters did not live up to those philosophies. Roles reduced to tradition surged to life, and honored pasts turned both into false legends and unexpected fact. It felt very robust rather than contrived because of these contradictions and misunderstandings. Oh, and there are some lovely solutions founded in keen observations that further support the way Joven and Kalina were raised.

As to the story as a whole, it took a bit for things to fall into place, but the directions satisfied me. There was a lot to absorb me as a reader while the characters attempted to solve the mystery they believed held the answer to everything…which it did in part, but not the whole. That whole, which I won’t mention specifically, made for a significant strength in the book, offering a reaction and perspective less common among stories of this type. There were several points where the story could have taken the easy way out. Instead, those turning points made things more complicated.

This is oddly a very personal story tightly focused on three then four people, but against a tapestry of sieges, war, infighting, and traitors where thousands hung in the balance along with a country’s future. The characters drew me on even when I struggled with what appeared to be story flaws and allowed me to reach the point where, despite the delay, most of the planted seeds bore powerful fruit. It’s well worth the patience to see through and I’m hoping for another book to follow. I’m not tired of these characters, and there are some complex issues to deal with in their future. At the same time, the book comes to a solid conclusion, showing character growth and survival of spirit woven through a tumultuous existence.

P.S. I received this ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review. ( )
1 vote MarFisk | Aug 12, 2018 |
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.

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

You can read more of my reviews on my blog. ( )
1 vote Tsana | Jul 18, 2018 |
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