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.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
I have wanted to write books ever since realising as a child that they didn’t just breed between themselves in libraries. Having contemplated careers as varied as engineer, tax accountant and zookeeper I eventually settled on the law. After marrying my jujitsu training partner and travelling to as many countries as possible on very little budget, I now live in Canberra, Australia, raising two small ninjas and two idiot dogs.
My debut novel, City of Lies, was released in 2018. It won the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel, the Ditmar Award for Best Novel, and the Norma K Hemming Award for excellence in exploring issues of gender, race, disability and class in SFF, and long listed by the British Science Fiction Awards.
The sequel, Hollow Empire, is scheduled for release in December 2020.
ARC provided by the publisher—Tor—in exchange for an honest review.
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 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 be 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).
My usual caveat: I know Sam Hawke as a personal friend. I don't think this affects what I say about books, but I like to be transparent.
Are you tired of books about assassins? Noble assassins, sociopath assassins, assassins you'd like to date, etc?
Have you wondered about the flip side of that coin? Who guards against assassins? Who would be in a position to thwart the one(s) eager to put the Chancellor into the ground?
This is the tale of Jovan and his sister Kalina. They are heirs to the family heritage of proofing. Their uncle routinely puts his life and health on the line to protect the Chancellor from poisoners. Since Kalina's delicate health prevented her from assuming the mantel of proofer, her younger brother Jovan has stepped up to take the training and to assume that role. Ostenisibly, Jovan is simply the well born best friend of the Chancellor's heir.
But when both the Chancellor, and Jovan's uncle fall victim to a deadly poison never encountered before, Jovan must step up as Proofer. As the city comes under siege, Jovan must protect the chancellor's heir as he discovers that the high-minded values he has been brought up to believe are at the core of his city are revealed as a lovely web of lies.
Sam Hawke unfolds this tale in a way that gradually widens the network of characters the reader comes to care for and respect. A strong mystery winds through the landscape of a lovely ciy and an elegant lifestyle that are ultimately based on lies.
Dodging spoilers, I will add that Kalina's story thread was as compelling to me as Jovan's. Her emotions as she faces adversity and physical challenges were convincing and moving. The sibling relationship felt very real to me.
Recommended for readers who enjoy mystery, compelling characters, cities with forgotten secrets and a nicely transparent style that never gets between the reader and the story.
Sam Hawke writes an impressively accomplished debut in the first of her Poison Wars series in which she creates and establishes a remarkably complex piece of world building with echoes of the many issues that plague and divide our contemporary society. It begins with a killer first line 'I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me', Jovan is fulfilling the family tradition of being a proofer, a poison expert and tester for the ruling family of Sjona in the so called bright city of Silasta, perceived to be an advanced and progressive place. This behind the scenes role was meant for his older sister, Kalina, the natural heir of this family tradition, but she was left chronically physically frail after the first time she was poisoned. Jovan and Kalina are the primary narrators, their authentic sibling relationship, infused with love and irritation with each other, at the heart of the story. It begins with the death of the Chancellor from an unknown poison, along with his proofer, Jovan's Uncle Etan. With the revolutionary forces comprising of the common people at the walls of the city, Jovan and Kalina battle for the Chancellor's heir, Tain, and Silasta.
This is a multilayered story of political intrigue and machinations, secrets and lies, the murder mystery of whodunnit, and the return of the ancient spirits. Hawke provides a wide array of diverse characters in terms of race, mental health issues, disabilities and more with all the consequent tensions, prejudices and challenges this gives rise to. Amongst the privileged ruling classes, including Jovan, there is a blindness as to the fate of the lower classes, with their erroneous beliefs that they are happy and a failure to appreciate and take responsibility for the repercussions of their decision making. The lies underpinning the facade of the city are exposed to reveal the murky underbelly of Silasta. In this thought provoking novel, I particularly loved the character of Kalina, whose physical frailties meant that her intelligence and considerable abilities were often underestimated.
Interspersed in the narrative, poisons and their characteristics are outlined, along with how a proofer might discern that they are being used. This is brilliant and unforgettable storytelling from Sam Hawke, an author who has definitely made her mark with this novel that I highly recommend. Many thanks to Random House Transworld for an ARC.
City of Lies was entertaining from start to finish. It was incredibly refreshing to see poison front and centre in a book.
City of Lies follows the two viewpoints of brother and sister combo Jovan and Kalina, whose uncle is the poison taster or ‘proofer’ for the ruling chancellor. When they are both killed by an unknown toxin, Jov’s best friend Tain is elevated to the throne and it is up to Jov to not only solve the mystery of who poisoned his Uncle but also protect the new ruler. Whilst all this is going on a well-organised rebellion has begun driven by the common folk striving to return the spirits to the land and reclaim the rights that were sacrificed to make Salista, the Bright City, the metropolis it is. On top of this the army is fighting it’s own battles elsewhere and is seemingly unreachable leaving just a handful of fighting men and villagers to man the walls.
Jov and Kalina are both engaging characters. Kalina was the original choice to be heir to her Uncle but her body never truly recovered from her first ‘practice poisoning’. Propelled by a fierce devotion to her friends and family and thrust into uncertain circumstances she must rely on an inner strength, her smarts, her skills as an orator and the fact that everyone underestimates her, to become an important player in the game. Jov is earnest in fulfilling his role as Tain’s protector, eager to honour his family and the duty they have always performed and torn by the death of his mentor and his own inability to solve the puzzle before him. They were two distinct and interesting voices and I enjoyed switching between the two of them throughout the course of the book.
There were a couple of nice pieces of world building that made this one stand apart particularly in the treatment of tradition gender paths. As the father of a two year old girl I enjoyed reading that in this world the females were acknowledged as the dominant contributor to genetic lines and it was males that took on the last names of their loved ones when marrying. A string of male heirs has brought down many a house and it was a nice twist on the norm that I had pretty much taken for granted.
There’s something about poison, it’s certainly an interesting option if one was seeking to dispose of an enemy. I rarely sit down wondering how I would storm a wall, or defeat a Cyclops but poisoning someone is something really anyone can do and it set my mind wandering. I think a good way to take someone out would be to taint the wheel of a car or considering the genre the reins of a horse and carriage. It would not be a 100% reliable which is a weakness but a sudden loss of consciousness or even a distortion of vision at high speed could be enough to cause an accident, which would be the true cause of death. Would poison be a consideration if someone’s head was ten feet away in a ditch? Is it healthy to be asking these sorts of questions? DO YOU SEE WHAT SAM HAWKE HAS DONE TO ME???
City of Lies is thought provoking and original with a wicked pace that makes it impossible not to get sucked into. The threat of poison is a lurking menace and gives the story an undercurrent of tension with readers unable to escape the fact that at any second a touch, a fall, a bite, even a breath could be the end of a character they’ve come to like. Overall Hawke’s debut is fantastic and whilst this is part one of a series it is truly a complete and beautiful story all on its own. You should definitely buy this book.
This review was originally posted on Fantasy Faction where I rather embarrassingly misspelt Kalina as Kamini.
I had such high expectations for this and was immediately drawn into the world, however, I was disappointed with the execution. I had issues with the pacing, info-dumps and the antagonist's motivations didn't feel strong enough.
I think I would have loved this more if the book had been condensed and if we'd experienced everything from Kallina's perspective - and I might ship her with her brother's love interest....
First in the Poison Wars series, and the debut novel by Sam Hawke, City of Lies starts out as a kind of murder mystery- the Chancellor of Silasta is fatally dosed with a substance unknown to his closest friend, secret guardian and master of poisons, Etan. His death, and the subsequent arrival of a similarly mysterious army outside the gates, seem more than coincidence. Investigations are left to the Chancellor’s Heir, Tain, and his two best friends, Jovan and Kalina, nice and nephew to Etan. These sibling protagonists relate most of the tale, as unfolding events expand into conspiracies which threaten the very way of life within the city.
Sam Hawke has clearly thought deeply about what she wanted to say with her book. To tell a good story, that’s a given. But more than that, she’s considered what cities and societies really looks like, and decided to offer her readers a more genuine sense of humanity in all its forms. As a result, the variety in representation was wonderful, and effectively done, from skin tone to mental and physical disability, the alternative style of family life and raising children, to the ‘love as thou wilt’ philosophy. At no point did it feel forced, or a means of box ticking, as some people have suggested is the case when anything other than ‘straight, white’ is the choice of the day. If anything, she utilises character reactions to diversity as a means of challenging ways of thinking and behaviour, both within the book and without. Nobody gets it correct all the time or right away, but this is as much a book of ethical philosophy as anything else. Don’t worry though, it’s damn good fun too.
What should have been an intrinsically fraught relationship between siblings, Kalina’s role as heir to Etan’s knowledge is ruined by her illness and thus passed to Jovan instead, is one filled with love and concern and annoyance. Anyone with a brother or sister will recognise at least parts of it, if not all. They seem to be a distorted mirror of each other; Jovan challenged by mental health issues, showing obsessive and anxious behaviours which are exacerbated when stressed; Kalina being more physically taxed after suffering childhood ailments, as well as educational poisonings by her Uncle. Each sibling sees the ‘weakness’ in the other, but only because they worry for each other’s health and want to offer support or protection, rather than considering it a defining characteristic or unassailable disadvantage. The brotherly concern is perhaps the more prominent and if it ever steps over into the domineering male territory, that’s ok too, because she takes no notice of him anyway. As sisters are likely to do. Poison is usually considered to be a woman’s weapon, and perhaps could be seen as yet another thing being taken from us, as dark as that is, if Kalina’s role had been negatively affected because of it. Instead, her physical fragility, and there are moments when her strength is literally lessened, does not in any way negate what she needs to get done. She uses it to subvert expectations, to misdirect, and play a role while working towards her own goals. Her mind is as sharp as they come and the two other characters in the book who know her well respect her for that. They listen when she talks. She gets to save the day, more than once. And thankfully, just because the protagonists are young, they don’t ignore obvious clues or miss the big signals, there’s no wilful stupidity here. Not only that, while the author added a bit of romance, it didn’t overwhelm the story, the brother/sister pair remain the most important relationship in the book, as well as their friendship with Tain. It’s refreshing. There’s so much here that will resonate with readers, it certainly did with me.
The society and culture of Silasta is multilayered, well structured, and indicative of a whole realm beyond the immediacy of the action. Characters from elsewhere follow stereotypical gender roles and have more restrictive societies, but the author has made sure the so-called Bright City, portrayed as a kind of idealised Roman high society, follows a more enlightened path. Or so it seems on the surface. What comes next is a serious clash of cultures, a city/county, high/low society, educated/ignored divide that has brought people to desperate action. At first, the ruling council has an instinctive and deeply visceral reaction to the idea that their way of living is not only being threatened by their own people, but that they might just hold some responsibility for the way things have turned out. It is shocking to see even Jovan react negatively to the idea that his perfect society could cause so many ills to those outside the bright circle of wealth and privilege. This is where the magical element finally comes into play, as the city’s ignorance of natural and religious spirits of the land brings deadly consequences. Of course, you can just see this as really good fantasy, but oh my, the modern parallels are hard to ignore. Those sitting at the top, ignorantly or otherwise, are ever shocked when those beneath them start to question their place at the bottom. Sexism/Me Too, racism, the social care, mental health, and disability funding crisis, refugees…take your pick- the moral questions raised in the book about the way societies treat ALL their citizens (as well as those who want to join) are far from imagination.
So, why not 5 stars then? Well, there are some issues with pacing and the occasional failure with flow, language that doesn’t quite hit the right note and moments that don’t feel like they need to be there. One romance, in particular, seems necessary only to set up something for the big finish. Equally, I’m not sure where the author plans to take the series. We’ve learnt so much about the three main characters, just enough to fill this book, but there’s not a whole lot left for the future. Or perhaps, not that much more we want to know? I liked the narrators, but I didn’t love them, and despite all the positives of the book, i’d still be happy to leave it here. If you’re looking for magic and mayhem, this is not really for you, but if you want layered intrigue with a whodunnit, it’s well worth your time.
There are many different reasons that makes us as readers read a book. For me there were three main reasons that made me read this one: The gorgeous art cover, the blurb line and all the glowing reviews this was getting from all my friends here at GR. There was no way I was not gonna like this, right??!!!
It turns out I was wrong because I expected something and got something else completely. The book has a perfect opening line:
I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me...
Mix this with the name of the series (Poison Wars) and I thought it is something more action-packed, something with a unique world-building and all kind of poisons and that we will have a magic system based on poisons! I don't know where I got that from but those were my expectations that were never met.
The reality? This reads more like historical fantasy, there is no magic in this one. The second line makes the first line kind of underwhelming and there are no poison wars, I read 40% and there were merely exciting poisons there. Every Chapter is preceded by a description of a plant and it is poisonous characteristics and how it can be traced. To be honest, it all sounds the same and it gave me a through back to the days when I was studying pharmacology and barely recognizing drugs or identifying the difference between Alprazolam and Lorazepam for example!
The writing was slow and very descriptive and for some reason, this style does not usually work for me! The two point of views sounded exactly the same to me and I kept confusing between Jovan and Kalina and I was bored reading both anyway!
Summary: I think my expectations made my experience with this one very underwhelming. I thought it would be something else. I was mostly bored reading this so I decided to DNF it! Most of my friends enjoyed it so there is no reason that you may not too!
I liked the ending and how the mystery wrapped up but this book took forever to get there! It was so slow and I found myself not caring at points. This was more political than magical as well. One of our main characters has OCD and the other is chronically ill, so I enjoyed seeing that representation in the story but still found myself not caring that much about the characters throughout. This ended like a stand-alone so I don’t feel compelled to continue with the series.
City of Lies turned out to be an OK first entry into Sam Hawke's Poison Wars series. This fantasy had a nice mix of murder mystery and political intrigue. It was not super fast paced or full of action but it did have some moments like that and the other elements of the story were interesting enough. It also had a degree of originality and freshness to the world building.
The book had a lot of positives going for it but also had a bunch of flaws and the end result was that I found this a bit average. A story of good ideas but one that still managed to annoy me or lose my full attention at times.
Set in the City state of Silasta this told the story of siblings Jovan and Kalina. They were prominent members of one of six ruling noble families. Their uncle, Etan, was the main advisor of the hereditary Chancellor of Silasta and both Jovan and Kalina were close friends with Taim, the heir to the Chancellery. After both Etan and the Chancellor are murdered by poison this thrusts both heirs, Jovan and Taim, into active roles in the government long before they are ready. Their new responsibility has also come at a bad time as they need to track down the poisoner who murdered their uncles as well as dealing with a lot of political tension and unrest.
The story was interesting enough. Jovan, like his uncle before him, is a close advisor to the Chancellor but unknown to most of society Jovan's family has served in the role of poison tester and protector of the Chancellor for generations. Jovan has been trained by his uncle to follow in his footsteps. Kalina, unwilling to be left in the shadow of her brother, has a few secrets of her own and uses them to help both Taim and Jovan in their new roles. It was an interesting premise and Jovan, Kalina, and Taim were all easy characters to root for. They were likeable, brave, and idealistic but far from perfect as they were also a little naive and prone to the biases of their upbringing and culture.
The world building was fresh and original but also, bizarrely, provided as much weaknesses to the story as it did strengths. The good was the fact that the City state of Silasta had a culture that was not just a carbon copy of one of our own familiar present or historical societies. I liked that and feel more fantasy authors should be exploring more creative cultures and settings in their stories! That said, I feel like the flaw in this story was that the new culture was every bit as problematic in its own way as any we are familiar with but that the strangeness of the new culture made its flaws more prominent. The result is that I ended up frustrated and annoyed a lot with the discrimination and bigotry on display. The main characters were naive but fairly tolerant so they were mostly easy to root for but I hated a lot of the secondary characters and found most of the factions in the story hard to root for in general! I was also left wishing a few of the more unusual aspects of the local culture were explored in more depth so we could see how they functioned in practice.
Another success for me was the balance Hawke managed to convey between the political factions in the story. It was easy to despise some of the actions of both sides and equally to sympathise with both sides complaints and issues. It gave the story a good feel of complexity and depth. Especially when there was always more intrigue going on under the surface than was easily apparent. The flaw was that showing both sides as grey left me inclined to dislike them both equally and that left me struggling to properly emotionally engage with a lot of the happenings. I think Hawke got the ideas spot on but got the execution slightly off and that hurt what should have been a really positive aspect of this book.
Another flaw was the way Jovan's role as poison expert was used in the story. Hawke did OK with it and there was a bunch of fun moments but it felt to me like much more could have been done with the gimmick. For example Jovan ends up battling a bunch of people over the course of the story with swords and knives (despite having pretty much zero training in this area compared to a lifetime of training with poisons) and I felt like it would have been so much cooler if he had made more use of his poison skills. Guy could have been spitting poison darts at people from a distance, or something equally fun, rather than engaging them in regular battle. Felt like a wasted opportunity to me.
I was not a fan of the introductions we got at the start of every chapter describing a poison. At first I liked them as it felt like they were going to be something we had to look out for in the coming chapter or two but, sadly, it quickly became apparent most of them had no role to play in the story so then soon just felt like an annoying gimmick. I'd have skimmed them after the half dozen chapters but I was listening on audio so was stuck listening to every singe one of them!
Hawke's writing was OK but definitely nothing special. It was readable but not particularly engaging. I'm not totally sure why that was the case but it might have had to do with the fact that the dialogue felt a little stilted and dull. This was a story that was totally devoid of humor and witty remarks. Jovan and Kalina, the two POV characters, were easy enough to root for but never really managed to emotionally engage me. Hawke did do a good job with the mystery and intrigue. I was kept guessing for a while and the twists and turns in the story were handled well.
This was a tale that was low on magic. That is not an issue for me at all. The problem was that when a bit of magic did creep into the story I was really not a fan of it! It is hard to criticise too much as we never learned enough about it for me to get a real feel for how it all worked. We get a vague idea but that is it. Also did not help that it was so tied to religion. That was never going to encourage me to view it in a favourable light lol. Hopefully the topic gets further explored in the sequels.
The other big flaw of this story was how bland and forgettable a lot of the secondary characters were. I had trouble remembering who they were and telling them apart even going into the second half of the story. That is so unusual for me and was likely one of the reasons I found myself a little bored at times. It has been years since I struggled so hard to remember secondary characters and it even added a bit of unintended confusion at times for me. I blame Hawke's writing for that as I feel like the characters should have been made more memorable!
In terms of tone this book was a hard one to define. The plot had depth and complexity as well as some fairly serious and grim stuff like war, death, and discrimination aplenty but the story also still managed to retain a slightly YA feel to it. I think it may have given that impression because Hawke avoided profanity, did not glorify the violence, and gave us two fairly young and often times very naive lead characters to follow.
All in all I felt like this was a story with a ton of great things going for it but that it never quite managed to reach its potential and actually deliver a top story. It likely did not help that I had crazy high expectations going into City of Lies. The blurb sounded so fun and the comparisons it garnered were all good ones so I felt like it promised to be the top fantasy debut of 2018. Those high expectations only made the disappointment all the harder with this turned out to be quite average. Also bodes poorly for the rest of the 2018 fantasy debuts from my perspective as the blurbs for them all sound a bit crappy and none had the appeal of this one for me. Hopefully 2018 will not be a total dud year for fantasy debut books!
Rating: 3 stars. I may or may not read the sequel. Depends how I feel about this one once I've had a bit of time to reflect upon it.
Audio Note: I feel like both Rosa Coduri and Dan Morgan were passable narrators but that neither were particularly talented voice actors. They were fine though and as a duo who voiced a lot of the same characters in their POV segments (Morgan did the Jovan POV's and Coduri all the Kalina POV's) they did a good job of not making that a jarring experience. Both went for the same accents. If Coduri had a flaw it was that she made all of the characters sound pretty young. That was fine for Kalina, Taim, and Jovan but less so for the older characters in the tale!
The peace has been broken. There's a traitor among the trusted. Has the city's chancellor known about this all along?
City of Lies by Sam Hawke bares a hint in the title about 'lies' that gives away some clue to the rise of the powerful who built wealth upon and separated themselves from other classes of citizens in the foundation of a huge and mighty city (built upon lies). A very clever and character-driven story that's wonderfully imagined with secrets, loopholes, friendships, family ties, backstabbers, mystery, and a creative ancient history.
Jovan and Kalina a brother/sister duo, are shocked by the deaths of their uncle and the chancellor by what they assume is poison. Kalina is the heir next in line to her uncle's wealth and position as 'proofer' or poison taste tester at the chancellor's house, at which she isn't very good at. Jovan is to be the new guard for the rising chancellor, his best friend Tain. Both of them have some trepidations about their upcoming opportunities and both of them seek answers in what happened.
Jovan fulfills his role as protector with honor and Kalina is investigating and following clues about her uncle's whereabouts before his death that might lead to some answers. Uncovering a shadowed world beyond their own, Kalina must weed out the truth from fiction and decide who and what she can trust.
As Kalina and Jovan come up with more plans, their city falls under attack. With most of their army gone at the time, they abandon their trail and aid in the protection of the city walls and it's inhabitants hands on. As it turns out, Kalina is one heck of a team player and leader who doesn't mind rolling up her sleeves and work the defense.
A follow up on more clues, lead the brother/sister duo into deep caves and a secret underground. It's dangerous and hair raising at times. When their ways separate to do their duties, they find themselves each at crossroads to make a decision that could lead to more tragedy or be the ultimate sacrifice in an attempt to save the city.
When a traitor is discovered it is almost too late to turn things around. For some of them, it is!
This is a fantastic immersive fantasy read. Very entertaining and enjoyable, clean and brilliant.
The narration of this novel is switched back and forth between Kalina and Jovan and each chapter begins with a description of a toxic plant or poison and its effects when digested. Very interesting and a great way to break up the chapters.
Initially, I hadn't thought about what the 'lies' in this book pertain to, but I really like where the author took it. Not only is the reader lead to follow the investigation of the dead chancellor and their uncle, but there's a sub-story about how it all came to be which really tackles the root of it all and builds up for a sequel.
This book is one to try if you are new to fantasy. It is simply wonderful of a journey with amazing characters and plot. It's hard to believe this is Hawke's debut novel. It is certainly a book I recommend to any and all book lovers.
I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Jovan is the quiet and forgettable friend of Tain, the Chancellor’s charming yet irresponsible Heir. He's also a master of poisons and chemicals. He has been trained to protect the Chancellor’s family from unknown dangers. When the Chancellor falls to an unknown poison and an army lays siege to the city, Jovan and his sister Kalina must protect Tain and save the city-state of Silasta. But treachery lurks in every corner, and the ancient spirits of the land are rising...and angry.
City of Lies by Sam Hawke is now easily one of my favorite reads of 2018 - and one of the best debut novels I've read all year long. Believe me when I saw that you need this fantasy novel in your life. The author's writing style immediately hooked me - right from the first line actually. What kept me coming back for more though was the author's stunning world-building and her brilliant character development, plus there's a fascinating magic system to back everything up. This book is over 500 pages and I was so enamored by her style that I managed to speed through it in what amounted to three or four reading binges. I didn't want to put my Kindle down for a second, but unfortunately work got in the way. If I'd had my way, I would have attempted to devour it in only one sitting!
Like I said before, this novel has some of the best world-building I've had the opportunity to experience this year. The city-state of Silasta is practically a character on its own. It's so vividly presented I felt like I could have walked the streets with Jovan, Kalina, and Tain at my side. The description of the setting with everything from daily operations, class, political and societal views, and religion (and the lies everything is built upon, naturally) is so tightly threaded into the core of the story that it felt like a living and breathing entity. Even though we really only get to see the city-state of Silasta with a taste of other locales, the story never managed to feel restricted in anyway since we have such a great sense of Silasta it becomes more than just a place in the mind of the reader.
This debut also features some truly remarkable characters with Jovan, Kalina, and Tain. Like with the world they inhabit, I truly felt like over the course of more than 500 pages I got a great sense of who they were as people as they progressed and developed. The story is told in alternating POVs between Jovan and his sister Kalina. I loved getting to know both of them, but I found myself drawn to the chronically ill Kalina in particular - as great as Jovan is Kalina really steals all of her scenes as she goes toe to toe with her equally skilled brother. As much as I enjoy a fantasy featuring assassins, I have to say it was brilliant seeing the reverse here with leading characters who have been tasked with preventing assassination via poisoning.
Overall, City of Lies by Sam Hawke is an absolutely brilliant debut that I can't recommend enough. You will want to devour this fantasy all at once because you can't put it down. If you like V.E. Schwab, I have a feeling you'll be just as impressed by Sam Hawke's storytelling, character developing, and world-building abilities. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing where the Poison Wars series goes from here. It's going to be brilliant, I can feel it!
Honestly, if I had known more about this book when it first came out it would have been one I picked up far faster. I loved the concept of this one from the blurb, and Robin Hobb is one of the people who endorsed it, but I was still pleasantly surprised when I read it to find it was far more than I expected. It also gave me quite a few Realm-of-the-Elderlings Vibes and that is always a good thing.
This story is a behind-the-scenes look into the lives of Proofers. Proofing is an art and a delicate operation where you are poison-testers and you have to ensure the safety of the Chancellor. We follow two young people: Kalina and Jovan, who work for the Chancellor but are also his friends. They are both PoV characters and they are also siblings.
Kalina is a strong-hearted character who is determined throughout to prove that even though her body is often weak and she struggles to keep the family legacy of poison-testing going, she is still worth a lot and she is loyal to a fault. Her determination was unparalleled by any but her brother in the story, and I found her passion and charisma and clever ideas to be a refreshing take on a female lead.
Jovan is a very conscientious and careful character, He knows there is an awful lot of responsibility that falls to him when he takes on the family occupation, and yet he is still calm and considered throughout. I liked his story a lot and found him easy to connect with as a reader. I definitely feel like his outlook was one I could sympathise with and I cared what happened to him and Kalina.
Taine and Adhena (spelling may not be right here as I audio-booked this) are two other characters who we see pop up later in the story, and they are pretty great characters too. There's a lot of important decisions made in the book by these two so I felt like they were very worth a mention.
We get to follow the mystery of 'who-did-it' through Jove and Kalina's eyes. They are each narrated by different narrators on the audiobook, and they are both as fleshed out as one another. I have seen others comment that the voices were not distinct enough for each character, but this is where I think the two audiobook narrators did a great job of fixing this and making them feel unique. I feel like I really enjoyed getting to know both of them even though Jovan feels more like the main character at first. By the end of the book (which is mostly a plot-driven story) I felt like both were great.
The magic in this book is very minimal. It's a lot more of a mystery, siege and example of character motivations. There really is very little 'magical' about this until the end, but there are still a lot of elements you often find in fantasy that are much better done than I am used to seeing in Debut fantasy.
Overall this is a story which does not rely on magic, but still entertains. This gave me a lot of good moments and for a debut it really impressed me too. I certainly plan to pick up the sequel next year, and I really do recommend this if you are a Hobb fan or just want something involving poison and treachery because it's got all of that and more. A fascinating read and one I thoroughly recommend. 4.5*s
City of Lies was an incredible piece of storytelling and by far one of my favourite early reads of the year so far. Considering it’s not a short novel I banged through it in record time- pretty much three binge reading sessions where I immersed myself into the the city of Silasta, with its vibrant eclectic cultures and wide range of characters, where we meet Jovan and Kalina, the narrator’s of this epic tale, both of whom you will stick with through thick and thin. “I was seven years old the first time my Uncle poisoned me” – well if that first line doesn’t make you read on I don’t know what will. The thing with City of Lies is it’s immediate hook, the way the author builds the world and your understanding of it so beautifully and so quickly then drags you along with this brother and sister team as they realise something is rotten underneath the surface of this seemingly idyllic place and get plunged into a siege. Determined to protect the so called Bright City and it’s young untested chancellor Tain, secrets and lies are everywhere. There is a wonderful mystical undercurrent here that allows an exploration of prejudice in all it’s forms and the supporting cast of characters are all so so engaging- good, evil and all the shades inbetween you can’t help but get totally caught up in this fight for survival and search for a moral truth. The political landscape is cleverly woven into the story allowing for machinations aplenty and you should always expect the unexpected. The setting is descriptively perfect and it is beautifully written throughout. The relationship between Jovan and Kalina is so well described- their family history and that of their home is compelling and intricately woven into the narrative. I especially felt for Kalina, weak in body but certainly not in mind or spirit, she is perhaps one of the best female protagonists I’ve seen in recent years. She does have some competition from Hadrea though…. The action is all consuming, the quieter moments are thought provoking on many levels, the ending was perfect (I NEED the next book) what Sam Hawke has done here is pure magic on the page. The ancient spirits may be rising but they’ll have to wait in line – I am hook, line and sinkered and I can’t wait to see what’s next for Silasta, the wider world around it and of course our motley crew of hero’s and heroine’s who stand between the darkness and the light. Highly recommended. With bells on. Don’t miss it.
[1.5/5 stars] IMO, when you have a series labeled “Poison Wars,” it should contain characters dropping off left and right from poisonings (not just occasionally). It should have practicing master of poisons for the main character (meaning I wanted to be immersed in his experiences with it). It should provide a significant number of fun facts about different poisons, how they affect people, and how to counter them (more than just in the chapter introductions – include it in the story!).
This book had none of these things to any significant degree.
Every single expectation I had was dashed. Of course there was some inclusion of actual poisoning, but it was very much not the focus of the novel, and that’s the source of my biggest annoyance.
The thing is, I get that publishers play up certain elements of stories to market them effectively, and sometimes it doesn’t necessarily represent the text as well as it could. But my issues with this book go deeper than that. The actual plot didn’t stand very strong on its own even without the poison element. It lacked substance and depth, and didn’t leave me with much of anything to take away from it. Had it been a robust high fantasy, I may have been able to overlook the false advertising, but unfortunately for me it failed on all accounts.
The characters were disappointing to me as well. They had interesting profiles, and I would label them fun characters, but they lacked depth. Their dialogue was very simplistic, and both it and the plot made me feel like I was reading a YA novel. They lacked a complexity of motive and intrigue that would’ve made the story outstanding.
Overall, it’s clear this book misfired at every turn for me. It was a struggle to finish. I won’t be continuing the series.
Recommendations: City of Lies is perhaps much better suited for YA audiences than high fantasy. It’s very simplistic, straightforward, and, most notably, has a distinct shortage of gritty poisoning components. My opinion is definitely suffering from pre-read expectations, but even so, if I had a vote I’d say pass on this one.
First off, I want to thank the publisher and author for an eARC of ‘City of Lies’ in exchange for an honest review. Receiving this eARC in no way influences my thoughts or opinions on the novel.
I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me…
With a hook like that, how is one not at least interested in learning more? On top of that, DAT COVER DOE. As you may probably well know, I am a sucker for beautiful book covers and this one caught my eye when it was revealed last year. I waited…and waited…and waited for eARCs to hit, and finally got the opportunity when my TBR was filled to overflowing. But the good news is: I have finally been able to finish it and can say it is one of my favorite reads of the year. Though it isn’t the typical hack n’ slash fantasy novel that I am used to, the gorgeous prose, intriguing story-line, and overall development of the characters make this an epic not to be missed.
The first novel in the Poison Wars series takes on two (2) different POVs: brother and sister duo, Jovan and Kalina. Heirs to the “family business” of proofing, they sit in waiting for their opportunities to protect the Chancellor from poisons. When Kalina’s health ultimately prevents her from moving forward with the training, Jovan steps in at the behest of his uncle. Just so happens that Jovan is best friends with the Chancellor’s heir.
But when both the Chancellor and Jovan’s uncle die from ingesting an undetectable poison, Jovan is thrown into duty and must protect the heir from any and all threats to his life. What he doesn’t expect is the city to come under seige, and for the heir’s life to be in immediate danger. Jovan and Kalina must do what it takes to uncover the mystery surrounding the deaths of the Chancellor and their uncle, while also keeping their hope for the future alive. But who can they really trust when it all comes down to it?
I have to commend Hawke because, in my honest opinion, this did not feel like a debut whatsoever. Her writing feels like that of a seasoned veteran and she weaves a web of a story like none I’ve ever seen. Jovan and Kalina just jumped off of the pages and begged for my immediate attention from the get-go. The world-building is sensational, and the world that lives just on the underside of the streets of the city is slowly peeled back like the layers of onion just add to the overall reading experience. I also thoroughly enjoyed how balanced the POVs were between Jovan and Kalina, and how the author included a unique poison and description at the beginning of each chapter. I am a sucker for tidbits like these (all started with Michael R. Fletcher’s ‘Manifest Delusions’s series).
Overall, I don’t care who you are, you need to give this book a shot. City of Lies is a novel chock-full of mystery, lies, deceit, loss, and triumph, and I cannot recommend it enough.
Thoroughly thrilling! Part espionage intrigue, part class warfare, part murder mystery, CITY OF LIES is a captivating and occasionally heart-wrenching tale. The world is full and detailed: Silasta feels like a real city, with shades of Rome, London, or Tenochtitlan, yet entirely itself. Jovan and Kalina are compelling protagonists, each with glorious strengths and touching vulnerabilities. I greatly enjoyed this and look forward to continuing the series! (Copy received from NetGalley for review)
I received a digital ARC from the publisher, Tor, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Have you ever encountered books that push all the right buttons, play all the right notes, tick all the boxes — in short, fit so well your tastes that it feels like it was written for you?
City of Lies is that kind of book for me.
The story is told from the alterning points of view of Jovan and his sister Kalina. Both are at the service of the Chancellor and his heir, Tain, as it is tradition in their family. These three characters are, without a doubt, why I adored City of Lies. A few months ago, I wrote in a blog post about how nice protagonists are my favourites and how I wish to see more of them in fantasy. Tain, Jovan and Kalina are exactly the type of characters I crave. They are profoundly decent and their moral compass is on point, even when dealt with circumstances that are, to say the least, challenging.
They are interesting as individuals: Jovan has a form of OCD that can be crippling but has to overcome it in order to fulfil his duty to Tain and protect him from harm; Kalina suffers from an invisible, chronic disease and can't shake her feeling of inadequacy; Tain has to shoulder responsibilities he's not ready for. But their dynamic is also a very strong aspect of the story. Their relationships are layers of love and friendship, guilt and resentment. I can't tell you how refreshing it feels to have complexity with characters that are not jerks.
The plot alternates between action scenes and intrigue. There is an army besieging the city-state before the quarter of the book, and I expected the pacing to suffer from it. That wasn't the case. The tensions which arose during the siege and the twists and betrayals following the poisoning of the Chancellor kept my interest very much alive.
The worldbuilding is meticulously thought of. I loved how rich and real the setting felt; there is a cohesiveness to it, from the way families are structured to the political make-up of the city. There is also a forgotten lore that is slowly unearthed throughout the book. If you're a fan, like me, of the "lost magic" trope, you'll find it in a certain form here. Since one of the main characters has an encyclopaedic knowledge of poisons, it is also a prevalent element in the setting.
City of Lies explores themes that I found very appealing; the "otherisation" and xenophobia in times of trouble, social inequality, religion and traditions...
Everything in this book, from characters to plot, from ideas to worldbuilding, made for a fantastic read. I really, really hope there will be sequels.
Let me start first by thanking Tor Books for providing me an advanced reader copy of this book, as the official release date for CITY OF LIES is July 3, 2018. I always appreciating receiving review copies before the actual publication date and I do not ever take that for granted. I also have to admit to being somewhat ignorant with regard to this title until very recently. However, once I read the synopsis of CITY OF LIES by Sam Hawke, I thought it sounded incredibly intriguing and immediately requested an advanced copy. CITY OF LIES is Australian author Sam Hawke's first novel and the very first entry in her Poison Wars series. The buzz is really beginning to grow for this book and for Sam Hawke to have landed with Tor so early in her career is just a testament to the talents that Tor feels she already possesses as an author. Couple that with the fact that she and Robin Hobb are personal friends and I absolutely couldn't wait to read this, seeing as Ms. Hobb is definitely on my top three authors of all time list. With all of that in mind, I quickly jumped into the story of Jovan and his sister Kalina.
CITY OF LIES begins with the line "I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me". Well, if that isn't an attention-grabber of a first line I don't know what is! The story unfolds in the city of Silasta, also know as " The Bright City". Silasta is by all accounts a cultured and wealthy city of the privileged but also rife with corruption and greedy capitalistic abuses. The downtrodden who live in the surrounding areas of Silasta have been attempting an overthrow of the city for some time, fomenting riots and other public displays of defiance. However, the Chancellor of the city is an incredibly powerful man who has been able to stave off every coup attempt and has managed to marginalize the less-fortunate masses living outside of the city and keep them relatively under control. That is until the day that two highly influential members of the hierarchy are poisoned and the Chancellor is faced with the very real possibility that there is an undetected assassin afoot within the walls of Silasta itself. Enter the two main characters of CITY OF LIES Jovan and Kalina. They are both what are known as "proofers". Essentially the job of a proofer is to guard against their leaders being poisoned either through their food of by various other means. The way they are trained for this incredibly important job is to be gradually poisoned at a very early age and then throughout their lives so that they can develop a sort of immunity to poisons while also being able to detect hundreds of different forms and essences of those poisons before they ever reach the lips of the people who they are charged to guard. Jovan is thrust into the role of guarding the privileged heir of the Chancellor Tain when his sister Kalina's health is too frail to carry out her duties. When the two leaders of Silasta are poisoned (one of whom happens to be Jovan and Kalina's uncle, the still fairly inexperienced Jovan must learn quickly because the fate of Silasta and its stranglehold on the populace is very much in danger. As word slowly leaks out of their deaths, the rebellion gains more confidence, seeing it as an opportunity and a chink in the armor of the otherwise impregnable city. As a result Jovan, Kalina, and the heir Tain rush to solve the murders before any more occur and the ensuing instability causes an overthrow of Silasta and its noble ruling class. It is in the process of attempting to solve the poisoning murders that the three begin to peel back the layers of the truth at the heart of the city of Silasta and start to question what they have always been taught about their upbringing and world. For Silasta is not the Utopian society it has always been portrayed as for these three friends, and when they are faced with the reality of the deceit and intolerance that is a matter of course in the city, their entire perspective is devastatingly altered. How will that effect their future and the future of the city that they have always called home? Will the heir to the Chencellorship Tain be open to the truth or will he reject it in an effort to guarantee and solidify his power and eventual ascension as the future Chancellor of Silasta?
I love when I have absolutely zero expectations before I read a book. That's by no means a knock, I just mean that I had read no reviews of this book nor had I seen any marketing material other than the cover and back-cover synopsis. It really makes reading a book like this a freeing experience and you can just let the story unfold and wash over you with no preconceived notions as to what you are about to read. There are so many things that I liked about this book. The first one was the constant switching of viewpoint perspective with each chapter, alternating between both Jovan and Kalina. At first I didn't think I was going to like it and I was a bit confused. However, as the book went on I felt that it enhanced the story for me. I enjoyed seeing the events taking place through the eyes of two different people in very different situations. Once I got used to the fact that each chapter would be told through alternating perspectives, I loved it. Another thing that I liked about the book was the exceptional world-building. The city of Silasta is fascinating and the backstory of the disgruntled lower-class trying to overthrow their oppressive leaders was a deftly-handled one. It's a timeless plot theme really and we as readers can easily relate to a story like this because we've seen it in the real history of our world on many occasions. Lastly, I'd like to touch on the characters, most specifically the brother and sister duo of Jovan and Kalina. It is here where Sam Hawke really shows her prowess as a writer. The complex relationship between the two while also balancing that with the obvious love that they have for each other carries the story and lifts it from simply a good tale to a great one. I highly recommend CITY OF LIES and the good news is that this is just the first book in hopefully a long series where we can enjoy this world and these characters for years and years to come.
City of Lies is an excellent debut and start to the Poison Wars series. The story follows a brother and sister, Jovan and Kalina, as their world turns upside down by the assassinations of the uncle and the Chancellor, who he was trained to protect. Throw in a rebellion, traitors, and a siege, and the pages of this book really start flying by as you can’t help but try to read faster to find out who’s side everyone is on, how they fair, and what Jovan, Kalina, and the new Chancellor, Tain, will be able to pull off to save the city.
I immediately connected with Jovan, and was taken by his story of being raised to know poisons as he being trained to take over the role of “proofer” for his Uncle, whose job it was to protect the Chancellor. They are trained to thwart assassination by poison by recognizing it by taste, smell, texture, or any other method available to them. Of course, to train Jovan of this, his uncle started poisoning him at the age of 7. Fun training, right?? A life of being poisoned by your uncle so you can learn first hand about poisons.
I found his sister’s storyline and perspective intriguing. It may not have had that same immediate impact as Jovan’s, which pulls the reader in immediately, but still has it’s own appeal. She was supposed to be the heir, to be trained to replace their uncle in the role of proofer to the Chancellor, but because of health issues, she was set aside and Jovan became favored ahead of her. While Jovan and his sister get along great, this does add some stress in their relationship for her, even if she may not want it to. Sibling relationships are never easy 100% of the time, and add the loss of what you expected to do with your life to a sibling due to something uncontrollable will undoubtedly have repercussions.
The worldbuilding was interesting. I particularly found the expectations of how families are organized intriguing. Its a culture the puts more emphasis in the family you are born to than who you chose to have a child with. That means a man’s son will never be his heir as that child will be raised as part of his mother’s family. Biological fathers are essentially just sperm donors. Women don’t leave to start a new family with someone else, or to join a man’s family to raise their children there. A family’s next generation is provided by the daughters, sisters and nieces. This is why Jovan and Kalina were trained to take over for their uncle (they are his sister’s children). It’s an interesting concept, one that flies in the face of a traditional male inheritance patriarchy, but one that can be kind of scary if you don’t happen to get along with your family! It means you are always stuck with them!
Overall, I think this is a great debut, and really solid start to an epic series. Jovan’s perspective is perhaps a bit more exciting in a traditional way, but Kalina’s more “quiet” conflicts with her position in the family, her relationship with her brother and her role as a female in the family, as well as juggling all of this with her health issues was compelling. I wanted to see her succeed, to find a way to contribute despite her physical limitations. And I have to say, she shows tremendous drive and strength of character. Her biggest obstacles are her health, but also the limitations others try to enforce on her because of it. Her finding ways to assert herself, realize she has the right to be an individual and contribute how and when she can makes her role exciting, just a different way. Definitely recommend.
City of Lies is palatably poisonous! There’s no antidote that will counter the effects of being fully enraptured by this book!
I received this ARC from NetGalley and the publisher, Macmillan-Tor/Forge Books, in e-book format for an honest and unbiased review. I would like to extend a special thanks to NetGalley, Tor Books, and especially Sam Hawke for crafting an unparalleled tale!
New author Sam Hawke delivers us into a world of deception and intrigue, framed with the pen strokes of murder and mystery, while immersed inside the scholastics of poisons and all their intricate detail.
City of Lies is the debut novel by Sam Hawke—part of her evolving Poison Wars series. The first-person POVs switch from chapter to chapter—very unique, keeping the reader on his or her toes while appreciating other dimensions that are different from traditional story telling views. The world-building is crafted with great detail within the confines of one city—however, you never feel as though this “ecosystem” is small. Hawke carves out a world that is dimensional with strong character development. I particularly enjoyed how each chapter began with a brief tutorial regarding the efficacy of a different poison—I felt like I was going through a pharmaceutical clinical trial in a fantastical setting—this was entertaining!
The story flowed with dialogue and description that was easy to read and follow, and kept my interest all the way through to the end. Definitely something different than your typical fantasy telling, but this one will have you intrigued and excited to dive into the next book in the Poison Wars series as soon as you finish this one.
I’m looking forward to more masterful story-telling from Sam Hawke to follow City of Lies—Hawke’s triumphant entry into the world of fantasy fiction!
Honor-down! City of Lies is a book filled with intrigue and violent passion, young idealism and old-world fanaticism, but most of all a loyalty among friends that will keep readers eagerly coming back for more of this series.
City of Lies might not have completely won over my heart, but I will however give it the award for the most intriguing opening line I’ve read all year. “I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me,” begins our protagonist Jovan, who is one half of a pair of highborn siblings whose family the Oromanis have long been entrusted to serve a sacred duty. Their job can be likened to that of Secret Service, keeping Chancellor Caslav of Silasta and his nephew Tain safe from unseen threats, though recognizing signs of poison is their specialty. From a young age, both Jovan and his sister Kalina have been trained by their uncle, the spymaster Etan, to identify all kinds of harmful substances, which sometimes involved being poisoned themselves in order to learn and become inured to their effects. But due to Kalina’s poor health, it was Jovan who was ultimately given the role of official proofer, whose task involves taste-testing Caslav’s food and drink for any signs of poison before it is consumed by the chancellor or his family.
Then one day, the unthinkable happens. Both Chancellor Caslav and Etan fall to a powerful poison, one that is unknown even to Jovan and his extensive records of poisonous substances. Tain is called upon to take up his uncle’s mantle, despite the heir being young and untried. The Oromani siblings subsequently pledge to become his protectors, all three of them stepping dutifully into their new roles even as they grieved for their murdered kin. They are tested nearly immediately, however, as a sudden uprising sweeps across the city, resulting in a rebel army amassing at their gates. Very soon, Silasta finds itself under siege. Still reeling from the sudden loss of Chancellor Caslav, the population is thrown into further chaos. Few have faith that the inexperienced Tain will be able to save the city, but Jovan and Kalina are determined to help their friend weather through the attack. First the deaths of their uncles, and now this surprise rebellion—it all just seems too coordinated to be coincidental. Perhaps if they can find out who poisoned the former chancellor and his spymaster, uncovering the conspiracy might give them a chance at survival.
Although it is rather clumsily executed, this novel’s aspiration to be a fantasy-mystery mashup is something I can appreciate. I also like the series’ focus on poison, a concept that is used both literally and figuratively in the narrative. Even as the story’s characters are dying from direct contact with poisonous substances, the city of Silasta itself is dealing with its own toxic situation. Something is rotten at its core, poisoning it from within and without. Told for the most part in alternating chapters in first-person between Jovan and Kalina’s perspectives, City of Lies is the story of the siblings’ efforts to sleuth out the ones responsible for the corruption in their midst. The book has elements of intrigue and spycraft, covert motives and betrayal, and eventually, a thread of magic even comes into play, though this aspect remains light and subtle throughout.
In the end, my main issue with City of Lies was its pacing. At times, it would read like a tensely wrought thriller, while at others, the plot slowed to a crawl. The book also struggled to maintain its air of mystery—though, to be fair, when this atmosphere was present, the story practically oozed a rich and almost cinematic quality. But perhaps what bothered me the most about reading this was this frustrating sense of stop-and-go, since I found it difficult to work up my enthusiasm for the story and characters every time the plot lost its momentum. I also wouldn’t exactly call this one an action-oriented novel, with its heavy focus on cloak-and-dagger elements which proved to be a double-edged sword. Keep in mind Jovan and Kalina weren’t really trained to be fighters; instead, they were taught to be observant, to memorize crucial information, and to charm and manipulate opponents rather than to attack them with physical force. While it was refreshing to read about protagonists who rely predominantly on more clandestine tactics, occasionally it could get a bit tedious watching them spin their wheels.
Speaking of which, I liked both Jovan and Kalina, but I found their POVs to be somewhat unbalanced. The focus favors Jovan, who appears to carry out most of the investigation, while his sister is relegated to tasks behind-the-scenes. Not that Kalina’s role in the resolution of the novel’s conflict was any less important, but it did feel as if she sacrificed a lot more, but her actions weren’t at the forefront due to the way this story was told. Already feeling overlooked, inadequate, and guilty because her health problems prevented her from taking on her rightful duties, her character probably deserved more attention from the author than she received, especially since Jovan’s chapters tended to be longer and more memorable the further we got into the book.
For a debut though, City of Lies is undoubtedly impressive. Whatever flaws it may have, I also feel there’s a good chance many of them will be ironed out as we progress through the series, due to the way this one ended. A follow-up called Hollow Empire is apparently already in the works, and since I’m curious as to what the future will hold for Silasta and its characters, I’ll be looking forward to reading the sequel.
This book was nothing short of amazing. The story of Jovan and Kalina, friends of the chancellor, Tain, as their city goes through intrigue and betrayal. Sam Hawke writes a brilliant story with characters who are so well developed and interesting that I did not want to put this book down for even a moment. Jovan and Kalina were amazing and are now among my favourite ever characters; the likes of FitzChivalry Farseer, Sam Vimes, Hadrian Blackwater, Sand Dan Glokta, and Thomas Senlin.
The novel is heavily character based and told from the POVs of Jovan and Kalina as they deal with political intrigue, assassination attempts, a city under siege, and much more.
Jovan is the younger of the two siblings and is secretly the Tain's master of poison and chemicals. He tests all food before it can be eaten and puts his life on the line daily for his chancellor and friend. He's a really interesting character, knows a lot about his trade, and cares for those around him. Jovan has OCD that in times of high stress can be crippling and it's obvious that he often struggles with how it affects him.
Kalina is Jovan's older sister. She has forgone the role Jovan has because her body is weak and couldn't develop an immunity to poison. I can't pinpoint exactly what she struggled with, but it seemed to me she had chronic fatigue as well as some other physical struggles. As someone who struggles with similar issues in my day-to-day life, I found Kalina to be an extremely compelling character. She has these issues, but she doesn't bemoan her body, every day she fights to do what she can, to help others, to protect her friends. She regularly deals with people who underestimate her and think her useless at anything physical and is determined not to let her own disabilities stop her. In short, I loved Kalina's character and found her incredibly relatable.
Sam Hawke scatters little pieces of information and detail throughout the book and they frequently reappear later on and show just how important the little things are. Everything is done for a reason, be it character growth, plot development, intrigue creation, or something else.
City of Lies deals with some pretty interesting themes, including; xenophobia in times of trouble, social inequality, religion, traditions, and more. The book is fantastically written and a really enjoyable read. I really loved its heavy character focus and that the main characters were genuinely nice people. City of Lies is easily among my favourite books of all time.
I would highly recommend this book to people who enjoy: * Robin Hobb's books * Character driven books * First person POV * Political intrigue * Actions with consequences
This was really good, especially for a debut author!
It is an interesting plot that felt fresh to me. So far I hadn't read about a food taster (or proofer as they are called in this one) often, and I liked the different viewpoint to the usual warrior or soldier or such. Combining that as just a part of a bigger story with plenty of politics, religion and other topics worked really well!
An absolute strong point was the balance of the characters. Strong ones and weak ones, females and males, good and bad, wise and rash - and everything in between. I enjoyed all of the main characters and especially liked the two most important female characters. One for having a weak body but always working to try and improve herself, and one is the opposite -strong and self confident.
Another strong suit is the worldbuilding. I liked to learn more about the politics, the city, the state of the world and the people in it. I loved exploring more and more, and the puzzle pieces slowly starting to form a coherent picture without feeling like infodumps.
The one star missing is for reading a bit too easy for me at times - both in prose and in things being resolved too quickly when at first it seemed like a way bigger problem. I am fine with that in YA, but in adult fantasy I am a bit picky. It's really just a minor critique, as I really enjoyed the whole book! I'll definitely follow this author closely!!
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
City of Lies is one of those books that starts off slow and you're not quite sure how you feel about it. The next thing you know, you're finishing the book at 2AM. It's an interesting take on the epic fantasy genre with more character building than fighting.
What I loved about City of Lies is how character-driven it is. This book could have easily been half its length, without the introspection we get from the main duo, Kalina and Jovan. And that's not a bad thing. At its core, City of Lies is a murder mystery, and the duo are tasked with finding their uncle and Chancellor's killer. Soon after the deaths, their city comes under siege by an unknown force and they must help the Heir, Tain, prepare the city and determine the motivations behind the siege. The alternating POV chapters gave a real sense of urgency as problem after problem stacked upon them. Often, it felt like for every question they answered, three more would spring up from it.
Reading this, I was surprised by how inherently good Jovan, Kalina, and Tain are. Call me bitter or jaded from too much grimdark, but reading from the perspective of characters who genuinely want what's best for their people felt so novel, especially in an epic fantasy. While all three are aristocrats who help rule the city, the never act selfishly and truly attempt to fix the problems their people face. They all have such heart and care so much it's hard not to like them. I know several reviewers have talked about Kalina and Jovan having too similar personalities, but I personally found them very distinct. Kalina and Jovan often arrive to similar conclusions, but the routes they take are very different.
Another part this book does well is the worldbuilding. This book is not one for infodumps, so you pick up only bits and pieces as you go along. By the end though, I have a very solid understanding of how not only their nobility lived and their beliefs, but also how the middle and lower classes live and their beliefs. I loved the focus on family the society had, as well as the idea that a family runs on the woman's side. It was also nice to read about an egalitarian society. This book covers really interesting and topical themes like religion, social inequality, disabilities, and adaption of traditions over time. Most importantly, I found the exploration of treatment of religious minorities in times of trouble very well done.
My one gripe with this book is that I thought the villains felt flat. With how much explanation and backstory that goes into other characters and other groups, the villains paled in comparison. In some ways, the big reveal felt predictable. I can't say too much without going into spoilers, but I think if the book had been a little longer just to go into more backstory, it would have made the ending more solid.
One thing to note for readers is that this book presents a lot of questions to both the main cast and the reader, then takes its sweet sweet time answering them. As the rare person who enjoys an infodump, this drove me mad (in a good way). I always wanted to know more, to know why, and this book refused to answer my questions immediately. Plotwise, it made sense, but to my information-loving brain, I was in pain.
Overall, I rate this book a 4.5/5. The characters, worldbuilding, and plot were all fantastic, especially for a debut. While I thought the villains were a little weak, that could be overlooked for how amazing the rest of the book is. This is also a proper mystery novel where the reader can play whodunnit with the main characters. I look forward to continuing the series!
Oh my GOD I loved this book. I'm too lazy to write a proper review right now, but here's things this book had that I loved:
- NICE CHARACTERS. Everyone wants to solve everything they can as diplomatically as possible. There's an army laying siege outside our gates -> "Let's figure out what they want, can we make a deal with them, are their grievances legitimate?" Tain (the Chancellor) especially would really be besties with Julius from the Heartstrikers series. Diplomacy! <3
- MYSTERIOUS LORE. I love it when you can't be sure for a long time whether magic and the gods are real or not, whether the "old lore" is what it is, etc. I found out recently that type of world(building) (cf. Mieville's The City & The City) is called "mysterious lore" and it's seriously my fave type. Honestly, I would have been satisfied either way it turned out and was IMMENSELY satisfied the way it did.
- PLATONIC RELATIONSHIPS. Don't get me wrong, the romance was adorable (thought it did make me laugh and go "Wait you're having sex NOW??" once lol). But the heart is the platonic relationships: between the siblings, and between the siblings and Tain. YES PLEASE. I love how they cared about each other and I loved how they sometimes argued with each other but didn't stop caring for each other.
- CHARACTERS WITH DISABILITIES KICKING MOTHERFUCKING ASS. Jovan has I think? OCD or something along those lines, Kalina has some sort of chronic illness that leaves her body weak. It's honestly just... refreshing to have characters whose health issues aren't PTSD or "terrible scar that aches in the cold sometimes but usually it's cool". (Not that those things aren't good to explore, but it's great to have some variety, you know?) Also great that their loved ones remember and worry about those things.
- SOCIETY EXPLORATION/WORLDBUILDING. My blogmates always hear me bitch about how I don't like worldbuilding but honestly... I love this kind of worldbuilding? Cuz it's important to the story, it isn't just "Lemme tell you this random tidbit of history in this made-up world". And I love how some things are "better" than our world (no homophobia, no slutshaming), some things are different (matrilineal culture, so while both genders can do any work girl children are hoped for so they can continue the line), some things are the same/worse (hoo boy does the xenophobia and religious intolerance during a crisis sure remind me of something, living here in Fortress Europe :') and hey, have some nice classism with it too). And the exploration of it all is <3
- THIS COULD HAVE BEEN TOLD FROM THE ENEMIES' PERSPECTIVE. Around 60% into the book I realised that huh, this could just have easily been told from the opposite side. In fact, it might have been a more traditional story to tell from the opposite side. For some reason the idea made me immensely happy lol. Like hey, it's not good vs bad, just a load of people. Some of them are tricked, some are ambitious to the point of greed, some of them are depressingly ignorant in their privilege... But they're still just people, and most are just trying to do what's right.
- THE AUDIOBOOK. As a side note I liked the audiobook a lot: there's a male and female narrator for the siblings and it was great. The female narrator made one or two weird emphasis choice but in an 18hr book that's some serious nitpicking.
What I didn't like: Noooo why did one of the characters leave the city lol now I can't use it for my Fantasy Books Bingo square "Takes place entirely within one city".
I received this copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
One of my favorite reads of 2018 thus far.
I’m so bubbled over with excitement that I don’t even know where to begin with this review. I guess with honesty. For about 75% of this book I was convinced it was going to be a 4 star read. Nothing wrong with that at all, but the last 25% really sent me over that edge.
If epic fantasy is your preferred genre, as it is mine, then you know that a very high percentage of the plots in the genre involve war or some type of battle between good and evil. Even as a fan of such, sometimes it gets to be too repetitive. Usually when that happens, I’ll just switch up genres for a bit. Or if I’m lucky, I’ll find a book that flips the paradigm around a bit.
City of Lies is that lucky find. While it is about the opening of a war that has been undetected by the city involved until it’s too late, the story is encased in the city under siege. Much like the characters, you can’t escape the danger, lies and deceit around every alley corner in the city that may become your tomb. It is this atmosphere that sucks you in from the beginning. It’s a murder mystery wrapped in healthy helpings of fantasy.
The Chancellor and his proofer (tester for poison) are murdered in the very beginning by the very thing the proofer is supposed to save the Chancellor from. Poison. A poison that no one can determine the source of or provide an antidote. The reign moves down the line to his nephew, Tain, who has his own proofer best friend, Jovan. This is the way of honor for Jovan’s family, protecting the ruling family from quiet murder. His older sister, Kalina, was supposed to be the next proofer but her poor health sidelined her from her destiny. Her little brother Jovan took up the family mantle, despite his eccentricities and obsessive compulsive disorder. A move that stung her deeply but she continued to find ways to make herself useful despite her disabilities.
Before Tain, Jovan and Kalina can recover from the murder of their uncles, the city is under siege from an undefined foe. They are thrust into the roles they’ve prepared for their whole lives but never really thought would come. Together, they try to survive assassination attempts and determine what the enemy wants. But not knowing who the enemy is, handicaps their control of the situation.
You don’t fully understand the beauty of the world building until the last 25% of the book as well. While trying to absorb this new world, I was quite busy being choked up about things happening to the characters. It was then that I realized just how much I loved this book.
Go read it or I’ll sneak into your house and poison your whole family.
AH, it's done, and what a fine romp it was. It's going to be a difficult book to talk about, seeing as there's so much potential for spoilers, but I'll give it a go.
First off, this book is a fantasy mystery/suspense novel, and a damn good one. The multitude of twists and turns in the plot are artfully unveiled over the course of the book through the intimate perspective of its two narrators. A brother and sister, they tell the story in alternating first person, which I love. I run into so few multi-character first person POV novels, but I don't think I've ever found one I didn't like, and that's saying something, because I tend to dislike single-character POV stories.
As a seasoned fantasy reader, I was surprised to experience something I rarely struggle with. I kept getting a little confused at times by all the fantasy character names, not because they were poorly conceived, but because of the heavy mystery element necessitating I keep track of them closer than I'd normally need to. There was so much going on to follow at any given time, I kept having to refresh my memory on who was who to keep from becoming confused by the idea of an incorrect character in my mind being responsible for a twist that wasn't there. That said, it was my failing, not the book's, so I'm not letting it detract from the score. Just note you might want to make a couple "who's who" notes along the way if you don't feel utterly confident your memory is better than mine.
I empathized with both characters immensely. They were both blessedly competent and yet also satisfyingly flawed. The female lead, Kalina, has a fragile constitution, due I think to lingering damage from a poisoning in her youth, and consequently has a lot to prove, both to herself and to others. This manifests in the form of vital bravery at times, and impaired, reckless judgement at others, keeping her both imperfect and vitally relevant. The male lead, Jovan, struggles with obsessive compulsive personality traits, and is basically me, for better or often worse, so I empathized with him on a very real level throughout. Both are consistently wicked smart, which is refreshing to say the least.
I had one small gripe on that point: There was only a single instance I felt Jovan failed, in a way that was beneath his intelligence, to make a strategic decision that dangled in front of him, for purposes of moving the plot along. Late in the book an event occurs that potentially implicates both a red herring and a primary antagonist. Jovan confronts the red herring and through the course of the scene figures out that the true culprit was the real antagonist, but instead of publicly locking up the red herring for the crime to mask his knowledge of the truth and cause the true culprit to become complacent, he lets the red herring go free, thus tipping off the culprit that the jig is up. I'd like to stress, however, that this didn't really ruin the story at all for me. If it had gone otherwise, the book might have had to be twice as long, and certainly a lot less satisfyingly concluded. Many mysteries I'd still consider good books commit this sin far worse and far more times than this one, and if anything the fact that it only happened one time in this 560-page novel is a huge point in favor of its protagonists.
The concept is fascinating as well. The story opens early on with an assassination and an uprising, but in a genre that tends to focus on the perspective of the uprising, this book throws us a curve ball by following the ignorant despots who were responsible for that uprising through the unknowing abuse of their people and, surprisingly, the book managed to make me sympathize with them throughout. It's a story that feels fresh to read in a way that definitely will not disappoint.
It's not terribly dark, and will likely leave grimdark fans wishing for a few more hats fashioned from human scalps, or incestuous relationships, but alas, you can't please everyone. Violence is utilized only when needed, and the Disney sex fades to black before any uglies can bump together.
I was impressed by the level of suspense I felt toward the end, once I more or less knew the depth and breadth of the conspiracy. A deep sense of foreboding fell over me and stayed there to the end, one on par with Mary Higgins Clark at her best. The danger was ever-present, and no one felt safe, and it takes a level of skill and craft to pull that off this well.
It says it's book 1, but honestly it reads entirely like a standalone novel, thoroughly wrapping up its plot. I'm not sure how or where the series will go from here, but I'm certainly intrigued, and will be excited to snap up the next book when it comes along.
You can find my review on my blog by clicking here.
Who said big and chunky epic fantasy novels weren’t appetizing? Debut author Sam Hawke rushes to the table to prove their worth by serving us a delicious tale stuffed with poison, political treachery and ancient spirits. This dish however doesn’t come on the usual silver platter. What we find ourselves in front is a fantasy story grounded in mystery. As rare as they are, Sam Hawke showcases her outstanding storytelling talent and presents us a debut novel that is both visually-arresting and succulently-crammed with intrigue. All you have to do is let her clear-cut and meticulous writing style do all the talking.
In City of Lies, readers are thrown into the complex city of Silasta and follow the adventures of both Jovan and his sister Kalina. Friends to the Chancellor’s heir, their skill set amounts to the art of proofing, which essentially consists of testing food for poisons. With their mastery of these substances and chemicals obtained through a ruthless training during their childhood, they have sworn to protect the Chancellor’s family from all attempts of assassination. It is upon an unexpected incident within the family that all hell broke loose, but finding out that the city is being besieged by an army is when they stop believing in coincidences and start driving head first into a wall of lies and corruption. The mystery that hence follows Jovan and Kaline urges them to desperately haunt for answers in order to protect the Heir and the city of Silasta from being overthrown.
A fantasy story spiked with mystery is one of the most compelling and intriguing mix in literature. City of Lies embraces it with warmth and deadly desire, and delivers it within a political web of deception and class warfare. The mere societal structure developed by Sam Hawke in the city of Silasta is brilliant and helps give life to the city itself. Told in first person, with an alternative POV between both characters, readers find themselves slowly expanding their understanding of the intricacies of the city’s functioning, but also their understanding of the lies on which it is all built. How Sam Hawke progressively reveals bits and pieces of the answers to all the questions readers have is brilliant, but her ability to create even more doubt and dump more questions on her readers is even more outstanding.
As if that wasn’t enough, Sam Hawke’s attention to poison is engrossing. Kicking off each chapter with a lesson on a particular poison in order to break it down to a concise and comprehensive look at them (description, symptoms and proofing cues), she ultimately makes a specialist out of all her readers. It’s pretty amazing to see how much of a threat any and all consumables can be, especially with Jovan and Kalina’s proofing skills that highlight the treacherous world in which the high-ranked folks live in. While the world-building and the mystery plot are both amazing, I found myself less mesmerized by the characters, even if they had some great moments. My inability to truly distinguish them from one another is my biggest complaint, but Jovan’s point of view makes up for it plenty.
City of Lies turned out to be a dazzling debut novel from an author who definitely has a voice of her own. What she brings to the table is not the typical poison you’d find on your shelves, but an original, powerful and mystery-filled poison that will seduce you into wanting more.
Thank you to Raincoast Books and Tor Books for sending me a copy for review!
City of Lies won the Aurealis Award for best novel. And I am utterly unsurprised by this, because it is excellent in every way. An layered and intricate novel that gives little indication it is a debut, it is complex, political, nuanced and twisty. At one point, I didn't think there was anyone I could trust - turns out I was almost right. Alternating between two points of view, we are shown the world of the Credolen - the rich nobles of Silastian society - and their various failings, some far, far worse than others. Politics and prejudice abound even in a society of refreshing equality among the genders. But of course, there are many other types of prejudice, and the reader is shown them all - class prejudice and xenophobia being two of the biggest. And aside from all that good stuff wrapped up in a desperate siege and an internal conspiracy and all those delightful poisons, Sam Hawke presents us with flawed heroes who overcome despite their personal demons. A man with an anxiety disorder and elements of OCD; a woman with a hidden, debilitating illness. Brave and original choices for a debut author make, but Sam accomplishes it all with aplomb. I was particularly struck by Jovan's compulsions taking him over even in the midst of battle or the fight for his Chancellor's life. Many, many authors - if they even dealt with the subject matter at all - would have neglected them in moments of high stress, or had Jovan 'heroically' overcome his illness in the nick of time. Sam doesn't do this. She shows her characters as heroes despite and because of their conditions. Jovan still has to obey the dictates of his compulsions even when battle rages around him. She doesn't gloss over them, and she doesn't mock or sugarcoat her characters because of them. We don't pity them; we sympathise, and there's a world of difference. And we empathise, too. I could go on and on about this book, about its themes of caste and religion, class and power, but you don't want to read me - you want to Sam Hawke. And you want to read City of Lies. Do yourselves a favour and do just that.
P.S. A special shout out to the character of Hadrea and the BRILLIANT dressing-down she gives to Jovan when he makes it all about him instead of the wider picture. It's a spot on example of how white people often use tears to deflect blame and elicit sympathy when challenged on their behaviour by a person of colour, thereby making themselves the victim instead of the perpetrator, and Hadrea stands for absolutely none of it. I was cheering as I read it.