First in the Poison Wars series, and the debut novel by Sam Hawke, City of Lies starts out as a kind of murder mystery- the Chancellor of Silasta is fatally dosed with a substance unknown to his closest friend, secret guardian and master of poisons, Etan. His death, and the subsequent arrival of a similarly mysterious army outside the gates, seem more than coincidence. Investigations are left to the Chancellor’s Heir, Tain, and his two best friends, Jovan and Kalina, nice and nephew to Etan. These sibling protagonists relate most of the tale, as unfolding events expand into conspiracies which threaten the very way of life within the city.
Sam Hawke has clearly thought deeply about what she wanted to say with her book. To tell a good story, that’s a given. But more than that, she’s considered what cities and societies really looks like, and decided to offer her readers a more genuine sense of humanity in all its forms. As a result, the variety in representation was wonderful, and effectively done, from skin tone to mental and physical disability, the alternative style of family life and raising children, to the ‘love as thou wilt’ philosophy. At no point did it feel forced, or a means of box ticking, as some people have suggested is the case when anything other than ‘straight, white’ is the choice of the day. If anything, she utilises character reactions to diversity as a means of challenging ways of thinking and behaviour, both within the book and without. Nobody gets it correct all the time or right away, but this is as much a book of ethical philosophy as anything else. Don’t worry though, it’s damn good fun too.
What should have been an intrinsically fraught relationship between siblings, Kalina’s role as heir to Etan’s knowledge is ruined by her illness and thus passed to Jovan instead, is one filled with love and concern and annoyance. Anyone with a brother or sister will recognise at least parts of it, if not all. They seem to be a distorted mirror of each other; Jovan challenged by mental health issues, showing obsessive and anxious behaviours which are exacerbated when stressed; Kalina being more physically taxed after suffering childhood ailments, as well as educational poisonings by her Uncle. Each sibling sees the ‘weakness’ in the other, but only because they worry for each other’s health and want to offer support or protection, rather than considering it a defining characteristic or unassailable disadvantage. The brotherly concern is perhaps the more prominent and if it ever steps over into the domineering male territory, that’s ok too, because she takes no notice of him anyway. As sisters are likely to do. Poison is usually considered to be a woman’s weapon, and perhaps could be seen as yet another thing being taken from us, as dark as that is, if Kalina’s role had been negatively affected because of it. Instead, her physical fragility, and there are moments when her strength is literally lessened, does not in any way negate what she needs to get done. She uses it to subvert expectations, to misdirect, and play a role while working towards her own goals. Her mind is as sharp as they come and the two other characters in the book who know her well respect her for that. They listen when she talks. She gets to save the day, more than once. And thankfully, just because the protagonists are young, they don’t ignore obvious clues or miss the big signals, there’s no wilful stupidity here. Not only that, while the author added a bit of romance, it didn’t overwhelm the story, the brother/sister pair remain the most important relationship in the book, as well as their friendship with Tain. It’s refreshing. There’s so much here that will resonate with readers, it certainly did with me.
The society and culture of Silasta is multilayered, well structured, and indicative of a whole realm beyond the immediacy of the action. Characters from elsewhere follow stereotypical gender roles and have more restrictive societies, but the author has made sure the so-called Bright City, portrayed as a kind of idealised Roman high society, follows a more enlightened path. Or so it seems on the surface. What comes next is a serious clash of cultures, a city/county, high/low society, educated/ignored divide that has brought people to desperate action. At first, the ruling council has an instinctive and deeply visceral reaction to the idea that their way of living is not only being threatened by their own people, but that they might just hold some responsibility for the way things have turned out. It is shocking to see even Jovan react negatively to the idea that his perfect society could cause so many ills to those outside the bright circle of wealth and privilege. This is where the magical element finally comes into play, as the city’s ignorance of natural and religious spirits of the land brings deadly consequences. Of course, you can just see this as really good fantasy, but oh my, the modern parallels are hard to ignore. Those sitting at the top, ignorantly or otherwise, are ever shocked when those beneath them start to question their place at the bottom. Sexism/Me Too, racism, the social care, mental health, and disability funding crisis, refugees…take your pick- the moral questions raised in the book about the way societies treat ALL their citizens (as well as those who want to join) are far from imagination.
So, why not a higher rating then? Well, there are some issues with pacing and the occasional failure with flow, language that doesn’t quite hit the right note and moments that don’t feel like they need to be there. One romance, in particular, seems necessary only to set up something for the big finish. Equally, I’m not sure where the author plans to take the series. We’ve learnt so much about the three main characters, just enough to fill this book, but there’s not a whole lot left for the future. Or perhaps, not that much more we want to know? I liked the narrators, but I didn’t love them, and despite all the positives of the book, I’d still be happy to leave it here. If you’re looking for magic and mayhem, this is not really for you, but if you want layered intrigue with a whodunnit, it’s well worth your time.
ARC via Netgalley
Review by Emma Davis
CIty of Lies
Poison Wars #1
I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me... Outwardly, Jovan is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible Heir [...]
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