Book Review : City of Lies

Book Review : City of LiesCity of Lies by Sam Hawke
Published by Tom Doherty Associates on July 3rd 2018
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic, Action & Adventure
Pages: 560
Buy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Bookshop.org
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WINNER of the Ditmar Awards for Best Novel and Best New Talent, the Norma K Hemming Award, and the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel!Poison. Treachery. Ancient spirits. Sieges. The Poison Wars begin now, with City of Lies, a fabulous epic fantasy debut by Sam Hawke
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. Quiet. Forgettable. In secret, he's a master of poisons and chemicals, trained to protect the Chancellor’s family from treachery. When the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army lays siege to the city, Jovan and his sister Kalina must protect the Heir and save their city-state.
But treachery lurks in every corner, and the ancient spirits of the land are rising...and angry.

City of Lies did not read like a fantasy novel to me. It felt more like historical fiction in a different world. With all of the marketing pushing about the poisoning and the series being titled Poison Wars, I was expecting poison, the training of learning poisons and detecting them, and fantasy elements. Honestly, I was really expecting Poison Study, but with a brother and sister helping their childhood friend, who happens to be the surviving heir to the poisoned chancellor. What I got was an incredibly dull murder mystery, only visible if I squinted past all of the endless speculation and the countless scheming court politicians.

 

“The first and only time Etan poisoned her, she almost died. Even after years of immunization, her frail body, ever susceptible to every cough and fever, couldn’t cope with the dose.”

 

Unfortunately, I didn’t care about any of the characters or what was going on in the world. At first, I was excited to read that Kalina, the sister, was chronically ill and to read from her perspective because it’s so incredibly rare to read of a character with a chronic illness that isn’t magically cured, especially in a fantasy novel. But Kalina didn’t seem to exist for much more purpose than bemoaning her inability to take up her rightful role as the “proofer” aka food taster, which she lost to her healthier brother. Instead, she asks the right questions with the subtlety her brother lacks, and fails to have any kind of a life outside of her brother, the heir, and their roles as advisors and proofers. I am sorry to say that Kalina is truly a wasted opportunity to create a three dimensional character with a chronic illness, a task that is desperately needed in our society that demonizes those that are less than able bodied.

 

But surely at least the fact that the city is under siege is interesting, if the murder mystery and characters aren’t, right? Wrong. All of the characters stand around discussing what action to take and constantly narrating who might have what to gain from their suggestions, which I found exhausting and boring. Though I typically enjoy a good amount of court intrigue and politics, there was absolutely no tension or drama added to any of this recounting of divided loyalties or motivations. Instead, it was delivered like a weather forecast. 

 

“Over the next ten years, and hundreds of poisonings, Etan gave me many gifts: immunities, scars, an appreciation of our family’s honorable and secret role, and a memory and mind trained in our craft so I could one day protect the ruling family of Sjona as he did. As he lay dying before me, none of it seemed enough.”

 

Plus, Jovan and Kalina really didn’t have any stakes in any of the intrigue, other than doing their job to protect the heir and their friend, Tain, which is also somehow equated to upholding their family honor. This baffled me, as their uncle had already failed his sole task of being a proofer and let the previous chancellor die. Regardless, the lack of both narrators having a more personal stake in the protection of Tain made it pretty dull in comparison to series like A Song of Ice and Fire, where everyone has some sort of connection or tie to be used in their quest for personal and familial gain. It also didn’t help that we never really seeing Tain, Kalina, and Jovan just interacting as anything but Chancellor and advisors/proofers. We see a bit of Rain and Jovan’s rapport from their childhood friendship at the beginning, but it’s only a glimpse, and does not make up for the lack of character development. I know nothing about any of the characters lives outside of their work positions, any incidents in their childhood, differences in treatment throughout the three, or anything that would remotely round the characters out, consequently rendering their bond more than just a working relationship. 

 

The world-building in City of Lies was similarly uninteresting to me. Characters dump information about the culture of the city and how it conflicts with tradition in other parts of the world, but it just seems unnecessary as it doesn’t really pertain to anything at hand other than making people look uneducated and uninformed about the world around them. Though old religions are mentioned, they’re looked down upon as baser religions that have been left behind in favor of enlightenment and progress, though what this progress is I’m not even sure. This idea could have been neat, if maybe we had some perspectives written from a person that worshipped the old religion and had to hide it in order to maintain their standing and reputation, but as the only perspectives are the very bland Jovan and Kalina, we are never given the opportunity to form any attachment to the old religion in question. 

 

“Earthers, a slang term for believers in the old Darfri religion, weren’t terribly common in the city, and less so in the higher classes; no one in our family or any of the other prominent Silastian families had been religious in generations, that I knew of. Belief in spirits was generally regarded as an embarrassing relic of the past, unfit for a modern and civilized society. Still, we’d all been believers in the beginning; someone likely remembered more about the old rituals than I.”

 

Granted, I only read 23% of the novel. I really hoped to power through it, but found I never wanted to pick the book up, my thoughts frantically wandering to think about anything else remotely interesting–had I remembered to switch the laundry?–and even that I constantly fell asleep while reading it. I was looking for a read with a focus on the poisoners honing their crafts after years of practice, brother and sister poisoners being raised in the craft and working from the shadows to keep the peace of the kingdom in a magical world. City of Lies just wasn’t this type of novel. 

 

What little development the characters had in City of Lies could be attributed to one or two defining traits at most, such as Kalinas chronic illness and Jovans anxiety. Likewise, I didn’t even make it far enough for it to be categorized as fantasy–other than one nonexistent species of animal and fictional countries. It all read like one big giant detail of two not very likable or interesting people’s work lives to me. I’d suggest City of Lies not to those to those readers looking for a primarily fantasy read focusing on poison, but to those who enjoy books about political intrigue in a medieval setting and are more of a story reader than a character one.

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Book Review : City of Lies - Blogging with Dragons

Posted January 25, 2022 in Book Reviews, Fantasy

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