City of Lies by Sam Hawke

city of lies

City of Lies has the best opening line that I’ve come across for a long time, and if it doesn’t pull you in, I’m not sure what will!

I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me.

Only a handful of people in Silasta know Jovan’s real purpose in life.  To most, he is just another son of the ruling class.  The quiet, forgettable friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible heir.  In reality, Jovan has been trained for most of his life to detect, concoct and withstand poisons in order to protect the ruling family.

His sister Kalina is too frail to share in their secret family duty.  While other women of the city hold positions of power and responsibility, her path is full of secrets and lies – some hidden even from her own brother.

Until now, peace has reigned in Silasta for hundreds of years.  But when the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army storms the gates, the so-called Bright City is completely unprepared.  It falls to Jovan and Kalina to protect the heir and save their homeland – but first they must make their way through a new world of unexpected treachery, a world where the ancient spirits are rising… and angry.

City of Lies is told from the dual perspectives of siblings Jovan and Kalina, raised by their uncle in Silasta.  Part of the ruling class, it’s little known that their uncle is a proofer for the Chancellor, testing all of his food and drink (surreptitiously) to protect him from assassination by poison.  It’s a role that will be passed down the family line, and Jovan has been trained in the art of detecting and identifying various poisons for most of his life, ready to assume the role when Tain, the Chancellor’s heir, assumes his seat – which comes about rather sooner than expected.  I loved that each chapter began with the proofing notes for a different poison – where it’s from, the effects, and how it can be identified.  I thought that this was a lovely touch, and brought the story to life, giving a little insight into what a proofer looks for in their role.

As the eldest of the siblings, the role of proofer should have fallen to Kalina, but it was discovered early on in her training that her body could not withstand even the smallest doses of poison.  This does mean that Jovan takes a more prominent role in the novel, but I preferred Kalina’s narrative.  Whilst she wasn’t cut out for proofing, she has been far from idle, and her uncle saw an alternative path for her – one that has her assuming the role of spy in order to obtain information and spot potential problems for the chancellor via other means to Jovan.  This makes her observant and intelligent, and she knows a lot about what is going on in Silasta – more than Jovan at times – and it’s a role that she has adopted in secrecy, with even Jovan not being fully aware of it.

City of Lies is predominantly a fantasy novel, yet at its heart is a murder mystery, and it has a level of political intrigue that George R. R. Martin would be proud of.  I enjoyed the slow reveal of what was going on as Jovan, Kalina, and Tain work together to understand who is behind the Chancellor’s death.  It’s a mystery that will test the individual skill sets of all three of them, despite their relative youth, and the situation requires delicate handling as various parties try to manoeuvre themselves into a position of power should Tain fail in his role.

I did struggle to understand the world in which City of Lies is set at first, although it all became clearer as I read on, and I soon found myself wrapped up in the story.  Once I was accustomed to it, I found myself thoroughly enjoying reading about a nation that values equality in all of its forms – gender, race, sexuality, etc.  In Silasta, daughters are as well received as sons, and often preferred, as the bloodline is tracked through the maternal rather than paternal line.

family was the cornerstone of our culture and our honour.  Women contributed to families with our learning and skills, just as any other adult, and when we wished to have children we chose our most trusted male relative – a brother or an uncle, usually – to help raise them within the family.

Whilst many stories have women in roles of power, I felt that City of Lies delivered more in terms of having men and women on a truly equal footing, and I really enjoyed this aspect of the novel.

I think that City of Lies would be a good introduction to the genre for those who aren’t keen on stories driven predominantly by magic, but like the political intrigue and a murder mystery.  It’s a fantastic debut, and I understand that this is planned as the first in a series – I can’t wait to see what comes next, as I think that there is plenty of scope for further intrigue in Silasta.

City of Lies is published today (23 August) by Bantam Press.  Many thanks to Hayley Barnes for the review copy.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

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