Sam Hawke’s debut novel, City of Lies, is the first book in her POISON WARS series. It features two protagonists, Jovan and Kalina, who are brother and sister. They work for their friend Tain, a young man who has suddenly become the Chancellor of their country after his uncle was poisoned. As the Chancellor’s proofer, Jovan tests everything Tain eats or drinks. He knows how to detect most poisons, he’s inoculated against many of them, and he carries the antidotes. With a successful poisoner on the loose, Jovan’s job is more important than ever.
Kalina is trained in diplomacy, so her job is to advise Jovan in his interactions with his people and their enemies. This has also suddenly become an essential duty because an army has arrived at the gates and nobody knows what they want. There are also mutterings about revolution from inside the gates as a religious group complains that it’s being persecuted. Could there be a connection between these two events? And is it possible that one or more members of the Chancellor’s own council could be responsible for the murder of Tain’s uncle and/or the war?
Hawke’s characters are endearing and I especially admire how she gave us heroes who have challenges, and not just the usual challenge of being orphans. Jovan has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and we see his obsessions and compulsions rise with his anxiety levels. Kalina is physically weak due to health problems and she struggles not only to overcome fatigue and physical limitations, but also with making Jovan, Tain, and others understand that her limitations don’t define her. I think this was my favorite part of City of Lies.
I was underwhelmed with the plot, though. Neither the murder mystery, the political intrigue, nor the war was especially interesting. Jovan and Kalina spent most of their time (and it was a long time) following up on red herrings. Neither the villains nor the sleuths were very clever, except for one moment when Kalina figured out a crucial piece of information and another when she sent a coded message to Jovan.
With the plot of City of Lies, Hawke didn’t bring much new to the fantasy epic, though I did appreciate how she used the story to show us what happens when a country’s city-dwelling elite leaders forget that their job is to serve everybody equally, and not just the people that are like them. She reminds us that farmers provide the entire country with food, soldiers keep it safe, etc. This is a new concept to Tain and Jovan, whose privileged upbringing never required them to think much about the feelings of the people “beneath” them.
City of Lies is recommended to fans of Robin Hobb (who provided a promotional quote), probably because it’s an epic fantasy with a young male protagonist trained in the art of poisons, just like Hobb’s FitzChivalry Farseer, one of my favorite characters in all of fantasy fiction. As one of Robin Hobb’s biggest fans, I have to say that a comparison to her work was maybe not the best marketing ploy, at least for me. Primed to expect something on Hobb level, I couldn’t help but be disappointed when Hawke’s novel didn’t measure up.
Still, this series has some appealing characters and I’m willing to see what they do next in the sequel, Hollow Empire. I’m listening to the audiobook versions produced by Macmillan Audio and narrated by Rosa Coduri and Dan Morgan who are excellent. City of Lies is 18 hours long in this format.