Review: City of Lies
“I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me” (p. 1). So begins Sam Hawke’s debut novel, CITY OF LIES (Amazon). It’s a good start, with a fun premise that deepens as the story goes. The story follows the dual POVs of Jovan and Kalina, siblings from one of the most powerful families in the prosperous city-state of Silasta. Jovan and Kalina are close friends with the heir to the city, Tain. However, Jovan is more than Tain’s friend; he has spent his entire life preparing to be Tain’s ‘proofer,’ or food taster. Jovan and Kalina’s Uncle Etan, known in Silastan culture as their tashi, currently serves as city Chancellor’s proofer.
While Jovan’s role as Tain’s proofer is a secret from the rest of polite society, Kalina’s training as a diplomat/spy is secret even from Jovan. Although she is the oldest sibling and by rights should have become Etan’s apprentice, she suffers from a chronic illness that makes her too weak to build tolerance to any poisons. While Jovan constantly frets for her well-being, Kalina is tired of being coddled and longs to prove that her weakness should not preclude her from living the life she desires.
In a terrible blow, Etan and Tain’s uncles die in the same mysterious poisoning event. As Tain struggles to take over his uncle’s position as chancellor, Jovan struggles with his newly important role as Tain’s proofer, as well as his own grief. Jovan must also manage his obsessive-compulsive disorder, which adds another element of difficulty to his life as it quickly becomes apparent that Etan’s poisoning is just the beginning of a series of attacks against the city. Outmatched in force, and outmaneuvered by the traitor within the city, Jovan, Kalina, and Tain must use all of their wits to survive and save Silasta.
Although many dark things happen in CITY OF LIES, the overall tone of the book is positive. This is in large part due to the nature of Hawke’s protagonists, all three of whom are earnest enough to try and right past wrongs. Jovan, Kalina, and Tain have been gifted with lives (even in a relatively cutthroat aristocracy) that allow them to believe that there is hope for reconciliation with those who are attacking their beloved city. Indeed, while CITY OF LIES explores the difficulty of resolving issues such as religious conflict, the disenfranchisement of various classes, and the rural/urban divide, this is fundamentally a novel that highlights the power individuals have to effect change for the better within their societies. While Hawke does call out naivete (especially Tain’s), I thought it was refreshing to follow characters who were complicated in many ways, but seemed to have steady moral compasses.
One of my favorite parts of the narrative structure of CITY OF LIES is that Hawke allows her characters to NOT know things. Writing about narrative structure is an exciting way to start any paragraph, but bear with. So often fantasy books focus on extremely savvy protagonists who have their ear to the ground. If there’s muttering about discontent or betrayal in the kingdom, the reader knows about it almost immediately. It’s a little bit of writer-ly sleight-of-hand that gets around the out-of-fashion omniscient narrator while allowing readers to feel like they have a bird’s-eye view of the action.
Although both Kalina and Jovan are extremely competent they lack a certain amount of knowledge about how their world works outside of their areas of individual expertise (like most people I know). Hawkes uses their ignorance both for character and narrative development.
For example, the attack on the city forces Jovan and Kalina to confront the reality that the easy existence they’ve enjoyed is predicated on a foundation of untruths and suffering. As they struggle with their own involvement in a broken system, they must also acknowledge the complicity of those they loved and admired. This felt like a particularly effective method to push character development in the middle of siege (and stops the narrative from dragging).
Additionally, Kalina and Jovan’s ignorance regarding the stratification and injustices in society adds a great element of mystery to the narrative structure, especially to the first third of the novel. Event after event catches our protagonists entirely off-guard, leaving them unable to respond appropriately because they lack an understanding of the basic motivations of the other side. While this series of surprises could make the characters seem too passive, Hawkes gives both Kalina and Jovan plenty to occupy their primary strengths and demonstrate competency, such as solving Etan’s murder. This double layer of mysteries–the mystery of Etan’s death woven into the larger mystery of how and why an army would show up at the doorstep of Silasta–is effective at moving the narrative forward and holding the readers’ interest.
Overall, CITY OF LIES is a tightly plotted debut novel with compassionate characters–I look forward to reading more of what Sam Hawke has to offer.
- Recommended Age: 11+
- Language: Almost none. One of my quibbles was the swearing lacked variety!
- Violence: There's a war going on, but the violence isn't too graphic
- Sex: Some, but fairly PG