An alluring debut imbued with a perpetual threat of lies and treachery.
City of Lies is Sam Hawke’s debut novel and the first book in the Poison Wars series. For the same reason as one of my most anticipated debuts of the year—The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang—I was intrigued by this one because of the amazing cover. Yes, I’m a sucker for a book with great cover art and I’m not ashamed of it. The main difference though is that I’ve waited for this one for so much longer than The Poppy War; since last September to be exact, when the cover was first revealed. Other than that, I seriously knew nothing about the book except the fact that two of my favorite authors of all time—John Gwynne & Robin Hobb—have already praised this debut. Now that I’ve read it, I have to agree with them that this is a great debut, but at the same time, it’s certainly different from my usual fantasy read.
The reason it’s different is that there are almost no magic or magical creatures here. The book also wasn’t completely character-driven the way I like it, but I found it a good balance between plot and character-driven with the plot being the central focus. However, the main reason why it’s so different is that this book is more of a mystery; let’s call it whodunit fantasy. Readers tend to love stories about assassins and we read books from the perspective of the assassin. The narration in City of Lies went in the complete opposite direction by letting the readers experience the perspectives of those who guard against assassins.
The story began when the Chancellor was poisoned using an unknown poison and an army laying siege to the city. It’s now up to Jovan—a master of poison and chemicals—and Kalina—Jovan’s sister—to protect the city from the upcoming chaos. It’s an original take and something I’ve never read in fantasy novels, and I always appreciate originality. As I mentioned before, this is a whodunit story; the entire books focused on the question “who did it?” and I guarantee you every chapter will keep on making you think “I think he/she did it.” The storyline was great and I love the main themes in this book: honor, religion, and the fact that ignorance towards nature and culture is not bliss.
“Honor lives on after you die. It’s the mark we carve on the world. It’s living fairly and respectfully. If you don’t live with honor, what’s the point?”
Seeing that this is more of a mystery fantasy, I’ll stop talking about the plotline here and start discussing the other factors. But first, let me just say that the book felt like a standalone. I actually have no idea how the author will expand the story from here; it feels like everything have been resolved already.
The world-building is great. The entire setting of the book took place in one city but the scope never felt small. Every chapter also began with the name of a poison in this world, with the description, symptoms, and how to prove the poison has been used. I did wish to see more of the poisons at play in the story because there were only a few on the list that actually appeared in the book. However, I think this was a nice touch and maybe the author will use it for future sequels. Hawke’s prose was easy to read but it never was simple; it almost felt a bit like reading Hobb’s prose.
Honestly, this was a great debut and I wish I could rate it higher but I have one issue with it: it’s the lack of voice distinction between the two main characters. It’s not that the characters are bad or poorly written at all. Jovan in particular as the main character was great; he was flawed and felt totally realistic. My gripe with it is that ever since her first POV, I had a hard time focusing on Kalina’s side of the story. It felt like there wasn’t enough unique voice given to her character and during several sections of my reading time, I actually had to remind myself that I was reading about Kalina and not Jovan’s POV. The book was told from dual 1st person perspective but I don’t think Kalina’s POV was really necessary. She’s more of an observer and supporting character, and it wasn’t until the last 25% of the book that her POV gripped me. In my opinion, this book would be even better if Jovan was the sole POV of the story. His perspective was great from start to finish and it was incredibly hard to put down the book every time it was his turn, but sadly I can’t say the same for Kalina’s.
This year’s adult fantasy debuts from female authors have been incredible and I’m really satisfied by the two debuts I’ve read so far. Last year, Godblind was good but I didn’t find it as amazing as some of my reviewer colleagues did, and I couldn’t even make it through the third chapter of The Court of Broken Knives and I know I will never pick it up again. This year though, I’m very satisfied with what the two I’ve read so far.
City of Lies may not be the kind of fantasy that I usually read. It’s very heavy on mystery and very low on fantasy aspect, there are almost no epic battles waged, and it’s not heavily character-driven. But in the end, it still managed to win my heart. If you’re looking for a unique and fascinating fantasy book where every chapter always leaves you with a questioning “did he/she do it?” City of Lies should without a doubt your destination.
The quote in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
Official release date: July 3rd, 2018 (US) and August 23rd, 2018 (UK).
You can pre-order the book HERE!