City of Lies by Sam Hawke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a first novel, and fairly impressive. (It's certainly more impressive than the one I read previously.) I did have some problems with the pacing, and the whole thing feels like it could be cut by a double-digit margin of pages. Still, this book tackles some weighty themes, and has well-drawn characters who live up to those themes.
The setting is a bit generic at times, save for a couple of interesting details. (Such as the fact that inheritance goes through a family's women, and the Chancellor needs his sister to bear an heir for him rather than siring one himself.) What's more interesting is the history of the world, and the political intrigue the characters are swept up in. The titular City, Silasta of the country of Sjona and its ruling Credol Families, are depicted as a place and group who have gradually lost touch with the common people, to the point where one of the protagonists has no idea the people taking care of his family's distant estates are not even being taught to read and write. This inequality, as well as the repression of various ethnic and religious groups, leads to grumbling and all-out rebellion, albeit whipped up by traitorous elements within the Families themselves. This is a war story, a murder mystery, and a bit of a romance as well (with a more adult touch, refreshingly lacking the usual teenage angst).
One of the protagonists, Jovan, is the Chancellor's heir Tain's "proofer," or food taster and poison detector. (Each chapter heading describes a new poisonous herb, plant, or other substance, how it is used, its symptoms, and its "proofing cues," or how it is detected.) The other main protagonist--in alternating first-person chapters--is Kalina, Jovan's sister. Jovan has a sometimes raging case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, described with sensitivity and understanding by the author (or at least I thought so) which actually comes into play in the story's climax. (Jovan fights one of the villains in a dark room, and he has paced and measured that room so many times he knows exactly where he is during the fight, even if he can't see a thing.) Kalina has some kind of chronic condition, never named although it sounds like asthma. Nevertheless, she persists, refusing to let her sometimes overprotective brother hold her down. She is not your typical kickass heroine, coming off more as the spy type, observing and listening and skulking in the shadows. Still, she presses hard against her limits, and at the story's end breaks free of the siege of Silasta to bring back the army to save the day. (Well, sort of. The last quarter of this book is all twisty-turny, plot-wise, and while the various twists and turns had been properly seeded, I sometimes thought they were coming a bit too thick and fast.)
This book was well-written with engaging characters, but I wished the author had tightened up on the pacing and delved into the worldbuilding a bit more. Still, a promising debut, and a writer to watch.
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