Talk about one hell of a debut.
Take a compelling murder mystery, set it in vivid new world, and populate it with brilliant characters, and you might begin to realize how great City of Lies is.
We experience the story through the eyes of Jovan and his sister, Kalina. Both serve the Chancellor’s heir, Tain, with Jovan discreetly sampling all of Tain’s food to check for poison. The idea of a food tester was something I’d seen before, but this explored the position in depth. Of course it makes sense for a “proofer” to be intimately familiar with subtle poisons and their antidotes. Why else have a poison tester in the first place?
Poison serves as a central theme in this story. When Jovan’s uncle (his tutor in the art of poison) and the Chancellor are murdered by what seems to be a previously unknown poison, Jovan resolves to get to the heart of the mystery. Kalina and Jovan slowly uncover the deadly secrets hidden by the leaders of the city.
Throughout all of this, an army lays siege to the city and we discover alongside the main characters that magic might not be as impossible as they believed.
It’s been a while since I’ve read characters as compelling as Jovan and Kalina. Both are decent human beings, have to overcome mental and physical health challenges, and don’t resort to fighting an army of bad guys single handedly. Their alternating POVs (both in first person) complemented each other well, and their differing views of each other added depth to already nuanced characters.
There are so many things to love about City of Lies. The story is tightly plotted, with every little detail chosen with care and more relevant than it first seems. The world depicted is as imaginative as it is compelling. The themes of social inequality and cultural oppression make for fascinating reading and are relevant in today’s world.
And the characters…if only every book could have a Jovan or Kalina.
Sam Hawke is one hell of a writer. I never would have suspected this was a debut novel if I hadn’t known that going in. Once this story gripped me, it didn’t let go until I’d finished the entire thing a day later. I can’t wait to see where the story goes from here.