I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me.
Ever since they were children, Jovan and Kalina have worked towards a singular purpose — to serve their family, their city, and, above all, their Chancellor. Though Kalina is the elder of the two siblings, her physical condition — a weaker immune system and asthmatic lungs — prevent her from taking her role as proofer. That is, food taster. Jovan inherits that honor, working tirelessly from the age of seven to build up his knowledge and immunity of the world’s known poisons. Now, many years later, Jovan takes his job very seriously — protecting the Honored Heir, Tain, is not only a function of duty and honor, but also his greatest undertaking to protect his best friend. And though Kalina may not be able to proof food secretly for Tain, she finds her own way to serve her family and her country, thanks to her keen, inquisitive mind, and the fact that everyone overlooks her.
But on the day that Tain and Jov return from a sojourn abroad, both Etan (Jov’s uncle and his Tashi — mentor) and the Chancellor (Tain’s Tashi and current ruler of the country) are poisoned with an unknown, indiscernible poison. Their deaths are received by the noble city with shock and horror — and now, Tain must ascend to power with Jov at his side in his Uncle’s place. As the city grieves, sending out messengers to call back the Silastan army and announce the death of their leader, a huge force of Darfri people — the indigenous people who farm and work Silasta’s estates — march upon the city. At first, Jov, Tain, and Lini believe this to be because they have come to share in the funerary processions… but it soon becomes clear that they do not come to grieve, nor do they come in peace.
Silasta is under siege, from an army of their very own people. And no one — not any of the councilors, not Tain, not Jovan or Kalina — can fathom why. As the nobles hunker down under siege against the attacking army, Jov, Lini, and Tain grasp desperately at answers. Why were their mentors killed? What do the Darfri want? And how can they stop Silasta from falling into utter ruin?
As the siege wears on, one thing becomes clear: Silasta was not the paradise they thought it was.
The staggering debut novel from Sam Hawke, City of Lies is a treasure. Yes, it’s a historical fantasy novel, set in a world that feels, societally, like a blend of Renaissance Florence but set in a pre-Roman Empire Egypt and Canaan. Yes, there is magic — ancient magic of spirits of the Earth and gods long forgotten. But more than anything else, I would argue that City of Lies is a siege novel; a mystery novel. Hawke spins a tale of treachery and corruption underlying a city renowned for its education and civilization and exposes the rotten secrets at its heart.
Through the lens of its dual narrators, siblings Jovan and Kalina, the novel pulls back layer after layer of betrayal and revelation. When they learn the truth of their home, neither sibling can quite believe the lies they lived — and I love that Hawke calls them out on it, through Darfri characters who become pivotal to the novel.
While the plotting and mystery elements — who poisoned the Chancellor and why are the Darfri attacking? — are excellent (I particularly loved the take on the family unit in this world and how the Silastans view female and male responsibility), it is the overall sense of suspense and the characters that make City of Lies so memorable. Told in alternating chapters from Jovan and Kalina’s points of view, the novel builds upon each sibling’s thoughts and feelings, made especially meaningful because both Jov and Lini struggle with their own priorities and insecurities. Jovan has compulsions and while he can usually order his thoughts and resist those urges, it is strongly implied that he is on the autism spectrum. Similarly, Lini grapples with the fact that everyone underestimates her, and is desperate to prove her worth to her best friend and her brother, but more importantly to contribute to the plan to save their home. Personally, I found myself drawn more to Lini’s narrative, but both siblings were fantastic. Part of the magic is how much each Jovan, Kalina, and Tain care for eachother — in a story where everyone has a secret, these three trust in one another unconditionally. I loved it.
Add to all of this the fact that City of Lies is incredibly cinematic — I devoured this book whole and felt as though I were watching the first season of an exceptional fantasy television show. (Please, dear gods of film and Netflix, make this a television show.) And with that powerful ending? I need more. Immediately.
One of my favorite discoveries of the year, and absolutely recomended.
In Book Smugglerish, eight and a half poisoned herbs out of ten.