STARRED REVIEW
July 03, 2018

Besieged on all sides

By Ramita Navai
Review by

Jovan and Kalina, noble siblings of art-loving Sjona, are heirs to a difficult responsibility: detecting poisons and preventing them from reaching the city’s Chancellor. When their father is felled along with the reigning monarch by a poison none of them can identify or detect, they are thrust into duty protecting their friend Tain—the newest ruler of Sjona. And then, with their military fighting a campaign far from home, they find an army of fanatics at their city’s gates, hell-bent on destroying Sjona and its people. Somehow, Jovan and Kalina must decide whom to trust in a city they barely recognize, while fighting a war neither of them fully understands.

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Jovan and Kalina, noble siblings of art-loving Sjona, are heirs to a difficult responsibility: detecting poisons and preventing them from reaching the city’s Chancellor. When their father is felled along with the reigning monarch by a poison none of them can identify or detect, they are thrust into duty protecting their friend Tain—the newest ruler of Sjona. And then, with their military fighting a campaign far from home, they find an army of fanatics at their city’s gates, hell-bent on destroying Sjona and its people. Somehow, Jovan and Kalina must decide whom to trust in a city they barely recognize, while fighting a war neither of them fully understands.

City of Lies is only the beginning of the Poison War trilogy, but it functions as a standalone story as well. Sam Hawke’s tale of intrigue and betrayal comes to a seemingly pat ending, but knowing that the story is far from over casts a welcome patina of uncertainty over the state of affairs. This complexity is aided by Hawke’s skilful use of a first-person limited perspective to construct multifaceted and imperfect characters, although they sometimes fall into established fantasy archetypes. Sjona is a fascinating environment as well. Hawke’s politically fraught society is built on subterfuge in a fashion reminiscent of Robin Hobb’s Buckkeep Castle, and her magic system is an interesting take on the type of magic used by writers like Guy Gavriel Kay and Daniel Abraham.

Much of City of Lies’ appeal lies in Hawke’s writing style, and the depth and narrative potential of its world and characters. But the most interesting aspect is its approach to conflict. Unlike most typical fantasy works, Hawke presents both sides of a religious war as sympathetic. This is a plot that seems to be full of antagonists, but is actually populated with basically decent people who cannot communicate with each other, either because they do not understand each other’s concerns or because their complaints are too deeply held to be negotiable. Even the real masterminds are merely selfish rather than evil. As a result, City of Lies is a story that resonates beyond its pages without overtly moralizing, which is a rare achievement in any genre.

All told, Sam Hawke’s debut is an engaging, tense and deeply relevant story within an intriguing world that lends itself well to further exploration.

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City of Lies

City of Lies

By Ramita Navai
PublicAffairs
ISBN 9781610395199

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