City of Bastards by Andrew Shvarts
I was Tilla of the tunnels, Tilla the traitor, Tilla the exile, Tilla the bastard. I was the girl who chose rebellion, the girl who loved a Zitochi warrior, the girl who risked it all to avenge her friend.
Sometimes, it takes a bunch of bastards to save the day.
At least, that’s what Tilla and her friends tell themselves. Having thwarted the treasonous rebellion of their parents, Tilla and her friends have taken refuge in Lightspire and are honored and protected by the Volarian King. But things aren’t all roses — Lyriana has been banished from her order and forbidden from ever wielding magic again, Zell is forced to join the Royal Guard, and everyone is openly hostile towards Tilla, whore bastard daughter of the traitor Kent.
And then, one of the bastards — Markiska — dies. The official line is that she committed suicide, but Tilla knows that Markiska was murdered — so she embarks on her own investigation. Tilla discovers that something is very, very wrong beneath Lightspire’s shiny facade — there are secrets, corruption, and lies that could rock the very foundation of the empire. What Tilla must decide is where her loyalty truly lies.
Andrew Shvart’s City of Bastards picks up immediately where 2017’s Royal Bastards leaves off — with Tilla and crew reeling from the betrayal of one of their friends, the battle they’ve somehow won, and the unfathomable loss of Jax. At first blush, City of Bastards appears to be a quiet novel about the “after” part of a war — yes, Tilla and Zell and Lyriana have survived, but their new home is hardly happy. Thematically, City of Bastards is so successful because it forces its characters to evaluate the long-term consequences of their decisions, and face the hard truth that there are never easy answers, particularly when it comes to war. The bastards find themselves caught in the middle of a mess they did not create, frustrated and desperate for ways to break the cycle and end the disastrous legacy left by their parents. (One can’t help but draw parallels to today’s political climate, and sympathize with the desire to burn it all down.)
Tilla, in particular, grapples with her internal and external sense of identity and is labeled a traitor/whore by even the people of Lightspire (even though she saved Liriana and the Empire, few actually trust her and think she's a spy). Internally, she struggles with the dual stresses of loyalty and homesickness — she is loyal to her friends, but the more she discovers about Lightspire, the more she begins to question the Empire’s actions. Externally, Tilla’s horror grows as she learns the extent of the corruption and apathy within Lightspire, exemplified through the appearance of rogue magic and a rebellious group of monks sowing discord within the capital. And yet, she also knows that her father’s bloody aggression, ambition, and black-and-white approach to war in the West is also deeply wrong.
And Tilla’s hardly alone — though she’s the protagonist and narrator of the series, readers see how Zell and Lyriana grapple with the same issues and discoveries made by Tilla, forging their own paths and coping mechanisms. For Lyriana, it begins at drinking and partying; for Zell, it becomes something more violent and subversive. By the novel’s climax, the three have been keeping secrets from each other and there’s plenty of blood and blame to go around.
Darker, more nuanced, and more intricately plotted than its predecessor, City of Bastards is a welcome gritty turn for the series. I loved it, and cannot wait for Tilla to burn it all down.
In Book Smugglerish, eight pyres (to burn down the establishment) out of ten.