City of Bones by Martha Wells fantasy book reviewsCity of Bones by Martha Wells fantasy book reviewsCity of Bones by Martha Wells

Tordotcom Books has reissued Martha Wells’s 1995 fantasy novel City of Bones, updated and expanded. In an interview, Wells explained that she took a few opportunities to make the writing better but didn’t change the book substantially for this edition.

I knew who Martha Wells was, but until the MURDERBOT series I hadn’t read anything by her. This is the second fantasy novel of hers I have read. City of Bones is a pleasing read, with solid characters, intriguing magic and a plausible world that exists after an ecological disaster. Our protagonist, Khat, is nonhuman, a member of a species constructed by the Ancients, and discriminated against in the capital city where he and his human business partner, Sagai, make a living trading Ancient artifacts. Khat reluctantly agrees to lead an expedition to the ruins of an Ancient building with the powerful city Warders, magical enforcers. That trip sets the story in motion.

The point of view moves between Khat, a woman Warder named Elen, and occasional interludes from a character who isn’t identified until late in the story. With Elen and her cohort, Khat journeys out into the voracious desert that is spreading across the continent. They are set upon by vicious desert pirates, and Khat and Elen take refuge in the Ancient structure. Elen has some magic, but she is considered the weakest of the current group of Warders. Her mind is her asset. She is the favorite of the head of the Warder order, who sent her on this mission. Some Warders believe that various artifacts, when assembled in some way, will re-create an Ancient machine that will work wonders. Experienced readers will reflect that “reassembling ancient devices” almost never works well.

Martha Wells

Martha Wells

The mysteries of the Ancients, the political struggles including a battle for succession, the threat of madness for the Warders, an actual mad Warder, a mysterious assassin, plus Khat’s own troubles in the city, make for a complex plot as Khat bounces from one crisis to another. The kris, Khat’s species, is discriminated against socially and legally in the capital city where he lives, in familiar ways. Kris cannot possess the actual currency of the city—they are given “tokens” which equal the amount of the city’s coin. They are considered animals by many. Warders can read minds, or at least moods. They cannot read kris, so therefore, they’ve decided this means kris don’t have souls.

I liked all the twists and turns in the plot, but what stood out for me was life in the capital city, which is built in tiers so that hierarchy is literal as well as social. The richest and most powerful live on the top tier. The city’s poverty and inequity are obvious from the beginning, and yet, even though Khat lives on a lower tier along with Khat and his family, they have made a good life for themselves, and formed a community. Khat is a solid character with a realistic backstory, convincingly nonhuman. Elen is believable as she battles both her own self-doubt and her obvious prejudices.

City of Bones is an engrossing book with a three-dimensional world, a convincing journey to a land that isn’t ours, but is familiar. I look forward to more reissued work from Wells.

Revised edition published in September 2023. The city of Charisat, a tiered monolith of the Ancients’ design, sits on the edge of the vast desert known as the Waste. Khat, a member of a humanoid race created by the Ancients to survive in the Waste, and Sagai, his human partner, are relic dealers working in the bottom tiers of society, trying to stay one step ahead of the Trade Inspectors. When Khat is hired by the all-powerful Warders to find relics believed to be part of one of the Ancients’ arcane engines, he, and his party, begin unravelling the mysteries of an age-old technology. This they expected. They soon find themselves as the last line of defense between the suffering masses of Charisat and a fanatical cult, bent on unleashing an evil upon the city with an undying thirst for bone. That, they did not expect.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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