City of Lies by Sam Hawke

I would like to thank the publisher for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Bantam Press

Price - £12.99 Hardcover

Published – Out Now

I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me…

Only a handful of people in Silasta know Jovan’s real purpose in life. To most, he is just another son of the ruling class. The quiet, forgettable friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible heir. In reality, Jovan has been trained for most of his life to detect, concoct and withstand poisons in order to protect the ruling family. His sister Kalina is too frail to share in their secret family duty. While other women of the city hold positions of power and responsibility, her path is full of secrets and lies – some hidden even from her brother.

Until now peace has reigned in Silasta for hundreds of years. But when the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army storms the gates, the so-called Bright City is completely unprepared. It falls to Jovan and Kalina to protect the heir and save their homeland – but first they must make their way through a new world of unexpected treachery, a world where the ancient spirits are rising…and angry

I do think we are getting into a great new period of fantasy; possibly seeing the next stage after the grimdark era develop.  Writers and their stories still fascinated by moral ambiguity but rather than simply the noir tales of everyone being violent and amoral there is a much more interesting examination of how societies create such people and how they work – perhaps like now everyone wants to know how did we get here?  Epic fantasy being able to examine a world is better placed than many genres to examine how countries work/slide into chaos. Into this picture comes a brilliant new debut from Sam Hawke with one of the most fascinating stories I’ve read this year.

Welcome to the concept of the Proofer – the person who tastes their employer’s food and looks out for dangers. In Silasta that has focused around the role of the ruling Chancellor and has been passed down the family line – all is ordered in a country known for its ingenuity, technology, art and trading far more than any desire to become a military empire. Very quickly though just as the young Jovan and the heir to the throne; Tain, come back from abroad they are plunged into a violent and dangerous situation along with Jovan’s sister Kalina.  The old Chancellor and Proofer are mysteriously poisoned in full sight of everyone; upon their unexpected deaths Jovan and Tain find themselves running a country just as a vicious and merciless army appear out of nowhere on the boundaries of the city and state they are here for its destruction and not it’s surrender. The young trio are finding themselves in positions of power they were not prepared for; with a likely traitor among their close advisors and with the first true military force the city has had to deal with in decades just as they sent their army to deal with issues in the mountains….

One of the things that grabs you about this story is the set-up and the characters who must deal with it. It’s a book of contrasts – we are used to fantasy worlds all being quasi-medieval filled to the brim with armies and here we have somewhere that reminds me a little of south or east Mediterranean realms A trading realm that is advanced in sciences and arts but has decided to focus on wealth rather than becoming an empire.  In many ways advanced with women in senior roles including military ones and even tolerance towards same sex relationships it’s not your typical environment and is a joy to discover how it works differently to our own world. What happens though when part of the country decides the Capital needs to go.  It’s a siege situation where the city is not used to warfare and doesn’t have much of an army in place.

This becomes a battle of wit versus strength. A key part in this are three roles of our two narrators Jovan and Kalina.  Either of whom also fall into the classic fantasy hero model. Jovan is the studious serious one thrust into the secret role of Proofer for the new Chancellor. He is studious, loyal and moral but he is also neuroatypical - stressed when events move out of control and can seriously disrupt his thought patterns and behaviours. He is plunged into a very unusual situation and needs to learn how to adapt (as do those who rely on him). His sister Kalina would have been the Proofer but an earlier test involving poisons either caused/enhanced what would appear to be a chronic fatigue condition that an endless siege and various needs to investigate the city’s factions and communities takes a toll not helped by everyone considering her the weaker child despite her equally intelligent study of science and politics. This makes the story really interesting an environment that our lead characters have an even steeper learning curve to battle and they can’t simply do the massive fight scenes many adventurers are known for. As it becomes very clear there is a traitor in the mix the plot has these apparently young and innocent teens having to go undercover and navigate the trickier political world to work out what exactly is going on - and as no one can be trusted this really makes the city scenes increasingly tense. But when armies attack and invade Hawke has a great eye for making the chaos and tactics of battle collide that you feel very exposed yourself in the heart of the action!

The final element is that this world is not one of absolutes. It’s a country where many groups came together to create a new way of doing things and over time as with so many places that worked well for some and not all. Jovan, Kalina and Tain by being thrust prematurely into the heart of government suddenly find out a lot more about how their world operates and we see the power of Guilds and the richest versus those who society tends to ignore.  And being in a relatively powerful privileged family are they always on the right side of events? It raises questions of democracy and tolerance that means the solutions required are not going to be easy ones. A debate over morality and how government should work is not something you usually see in a genre often fascinated with supreme kings and again this makes it a very unusual tale.

My reading time this month was unexpectedly curtained but stepping each time into this book and exploring the world was a delight. The story is never going for obvious plot and in doing so has created both a world and set of characters that really surprised me in the direction they took. I think fans of RJ Barker’s tales would enjoy this as it goes for a similar examination of a Kingdom although this one I would say focuses more as a political action thriller rather than purely a murder mystery. It’s the start of a new series which I am keen to read future instalments in. One of the most impressive debuts this year I’ve read and an author I will be watching out for with interest!