“I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me.” The first sentence of Sam Hawke’s City of Lies lets the reader know exactly what they’re in for. A deliciously tense, well-crafted start to a new fantasy series, City of Lies follows Jovan and Kalina, two young nobles who have been raised to detect poisons and prevent them from harming the ruling family of Sjona. When their father and the monarch are assassinated, Jovan and Kalina have to protect the new ruler—their close friend Tain—from threats both within the city and outside its walls. We talked to Hawke about devising fictional poisons, creating a magic system based on emotion and the real-world parallels in her fantastic new world.
A lot can happen in the process of crafting a novel, especially when it’s part of a series. How different is the final product of City of Lies from what you originally intended when you set out to write it?
In some ways very similar, and in others quite different. I think it has stayed true to its core—that is, the main characters, who they are, how they relate to each other and the broad plot. What changed fairly dramatically over the course of editing was its structure (it was originally geared more heavily toward Jovan’s storyline, and undersold Kalina’s), some of the history of the world and the motivation for the rebellion and the active role of magic in the story.
I think the six guilds (Warrior, Craft, Artist, Stone, Theatre and Scribe) are fascinating, both because of their roles in the plot and the picture they paint of Sjonan society. How did you choose them? Was it more about plot, world building or something else entirely?
Definitely world building. The Guilds are a handy shorthand for what the society values and elevates—arts, science, learning, cultural pursuits—and what it doesn’t. There were a few extra Guilds that got cut for the purposes of tightening the cast early on, though!
Many religions use clothing as a mark of faith or status, and discrimination against members of those religions based on their dress is both a huge contemporary issue and something that turns up in City of Lies with characters like Hadrea. Did you intend to deal with or comment on those real-world parallels?
I definitely was influenced by real-world events in looking at how a dominant culture can steamroll smaller ones, whether through deliberate design or unthinking ignorance. In this case, the cultural difference is partially religious, but it’s also based on the class and geographical divide between the cities, and the land and people that keep the city fed and supplied. Where there are no racial or other physical cues to identify differences, dress custom, jewelry and other body markings can be a visual identifier of those differences and therefore the target of mockery and discrimination (or subtler aggressions such as taking the trappings of the religion and using them in a manner stripped of meaning).
Your choice to focus on proofers and poisoners reminded me of Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice series. Were those books something you thought about when writing City of Lies?
I love a good assassin story but I wanted to write the kind of inverse to that: the tale of the spoiled and pampered officials being targeted, rather than the tale of the assassins themselves. What I particularly love about Robin’s books, and what makes them stand out from other assassin romps, is that the poisonings and manipulations performed are never presented in a glorified or glamorous way. Fitz takes no joy in his position. He’s not a wry, unruffled or revenge-fuelled assassin. He’s not a cool loner. If anything, I was inspired by the way those books deal with the emotional cost of every decision and the consequences of a lifestyle of that nature. While my story is focused on defense rather than attack, the way that my characters think about poisonings and violence is never offhanded.
Your blog is a mix of thoughts on writing, life stories and humor (I had never considered how well I actually know the back of my hand until reading your bio), and your novel reads in a similar way, so I was curious—how much do you think you have a “writer voice” that’s different from your normal voice? You can take that to be about word selection, pacing or basically anything else you’d like.
I’m a lot sillier in real life than in fiction (at least I hope), and more conversational in my style, but I suspect the ole Samishness bleeds through into everything I do. I admire other writers who are far more elegant in their writing than I am, but I always sound like me to me. Just, with fewer rants about cheese hangovers.
You clearly put a lot of thought into the specific poisons and their effects in City of Lies. How much is all of that based on actual research into historical and current poisons, and how much of it was invented for your world specifically?
Oh, lots of both. Because the world I had created was pretty low magic, I still wanted it to feel like a different reality, and one way to do that, besides pretty significant cultural differences, was to have a lot less reliance on our world’s standard trappings in terms of flora and fauna. So while there are some recognizable “earth” type plants and animals, most are invented. I also didn’t want to be writing a manual on how to poison somebody for real, and I didn’t want to be bound by particular expectations about what certain plants do and don’t do. But having said that, a lot of my fictional poisons are based loosely on real ones to help me along! I left a few clues in the names so keen-eyed readers can probably spot some similarities.
I love that your magic is based on a kind of emotional communion rather than incantations or spells, and I’m always curious where fantasy writers get those structures from, especially when they’re as central to the conflict as yours. Can you talk a bit about building the magical and cultural mechanics of Sjona, and what kinds of inspiration you drew on for that process?
My POV characters know literally nothing about the magic in their world. I wanted it to retain a certain air of confusion and mystery and surrealism because that’s how it comes across to them. (Readers who are only into very detailed, rule-based magic systems, beware, this may not be for you.) Since the Darfri culture was the original way of life for Sjona, and is something retained in the more remote areas of the country but largely forgotten in the cities, it seemed natural to fit with an indigenous tradition of great respect for and desire to work harmoniously with the land. It made sense to have a kind of elemental magic that linked people and the land itself. Without giving spoilers, the concept of spirits bound to particular landmarks was obviously important to the plot, and I wanted there to be a symbiotic relationship between people and spirits, and for the use of magic to be tied to that relationship. As part of my personal tastes, I like reading about magical systems that are entwined with emotions rather than intellectualism (because that’s messier, and gives you loads of scope for good character moments), and that felt like a natural tie into what humans could offer to the equation.
City of Lies functions really well as a standalone story, but knowing it is the first installment of a trilogy changes the interpretation of several main storylines. How confident should we be in the way things seem to have wrapped up at this point?
Hmm, I’m not sure how to answer this without spoilers. You can definitely read City of Lies as a standalone—no big cliffhangers and the main plot threads are resolved (for the immediate term anyway). But the second book, Hollow Empire, deals with the very messy aftermath of the events in the first book and brings in new but related threats. The story will also pan out to see more of the continent outside Sjona. I don’t think I can say much more!
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of City of Lies.
Author photo (c) Kris Arnold Photography.