Review: City of Lies by Sam Hawke
Series: Poison Wars #1
Published by Tor Books on July 3, 2018
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.
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.