Jovan and Kalina are young siblings living in the city-state of Silasta. Kalina suffers from a physical disability that causes many to underestimate and discount her, despite her determined, willful nature. Jovan is non-descript, forgettable—and since the age of seven, has been in training to become a “proofer”and detect and employ poisons on behalf of the family of the Chancellor who governs Silasta. When an assassination of the Chancellor coincides with a sudden, surprising siege of their home city, Jovan and Kalina each have their own roles to play if they, and their home, have a hope of survival.
Welcome to the world of City of Lies, the first book in the Poison Wars duology by debut author Sam Hawke.
This is a lengthy epic, but without the sprawling settings of many examples of the genre. It is mostly confined to the city-state of Silastra, and this setting—its environs, history, and culture—are presented in rich detail. Silestra’s location along key trade routes has made it rich and powerful, with a cultural resembling the Italianate city-states in its class stratification, scheming nobles, and critical relationships with its often much larger neighbors. Rather than wielding maritime power like the Renaissance Italianate city-states, however, Silastra is landlocked, though given it is astride the shortest overland roads, it has a power and reach that allows it to punch above its weight. This air of overconfidence proves to be near-fatal when a besieging army shows up at Silestra’s walls while its army is inconveniently away. The powerful city suddenly finds itself humbled and scrambling.
So, too, do the protagonists. Tossing them almost immediately into the fire, Hawke shows us the true quality of Jovan and Kalina, both young, imperfect, and striving to transcend their circumstances. How the siblings see one another reflects how each views the world, and the novel switches between their perspectives in alternating chapters, each presented in an intimate, first-person point-of-view. Jovan struggles under the pressure of being pressed into service as a proofer for the new Chancellor—who is also his best friend. In contrast, Kalina, whose disability has made it impossible for her to serve as a proofer, faces an even more fraught path: with no future laid out for her, she must forge her own path, straight through the chaos enveloping the city.
By remaining more or less in one location, the novel has room to explore interesting themes, even as the protagonists face life in a city under siege, a constricting situation that ratchets tighter as the novel progresses. There are the themes you’d expect from a bildungsroman of this sort: responsibility, sacrifice, and fulfilling a duty in the face of imposing obstacles. But there is an even richer story unfloding in the background, in the history and culture of Silasta: one of subjugation, of lost culture, of appropriation, of colonialism. These fraught subjects are also well-explored. Silastra, Jovan and Kalina are surprised to learn, is not the shining city they thought it was.
As the plot unfolds, Kalina’s chapters ultimately seem to take a backseat to Jovan’s, and though this is partially due to the events of the narrative, it seems the book is really more invested in the story of the young poison master, right from the arresting opening sentence: “I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me.” (Poison plays a powerful role in the novel, both as symbol and plot point; each chapter opens with a description of the effects of a different lethal herb or mixture.) The plot and worldbuilding unspool in tandem across the first three-quarters of the novel, and if the end chapters don’t quite live up to what came before, I still remained engrossed; in both the depth of its setting and the exploration of its characters, the book earns the early comparisons to Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice. I look forward to revisiting this world in the second half of this two-volume story, and not simply because Jovan only truly comes into his own at the end. The questions answered in the final chapters left me with much more to ponder.