Publisher: Bantam Press
Publication Date – 3 July 2018
Poison, murder, conspiracy, and war are all on the way for readers of City of Lies, one of the best fantasy reads of the year from Canberra author Sam Hawke.
In the country of Sjona, the capital city of Silasta is a glittering beacon of culture and art. Young nobleman Jovan and his family serve a special role, subtly protecting Sjona’s ruler, the Chancellor, and his heirs from being poisoned. As a result of his training, Jovan is now capable of detecting and identifying poisons that could be slipped to his charges. While his uncle and mentor directly protects the Chancellor, Jovan serves the Chancellor’s carefree young heir, Tain.
When Jovan and Tain return to the city following a diplomatic journey, they are soon placed in a terrible situation. The impossible has happened: an unidentified poison has been slipped to the Chancellor, killing him and Jovan’s uncle. Without their respective mentors’ guidance both young men are thrust into new roles: Tain as an untested Chancellor, and Jovan now responsible for the safety of his nation’s ruler.
However, things can always get worse. A mysterious army has arrived undetected at the gates of Silasta, and the city, which has never known anything but peace, is soon besieged. The army appears to be made up of Sjona’s peasants and contains powerful individuals in control of spirits. With the majority of the military far away fighting in another conflict, few professional soldiers are left to defend Silasta, and Tain must lead a desperate defence against a superior force.
As the siege continues, it soon becomes apparent that not everything is as it seems. Why is the city being attacked, and how did no one see this coming? A deep conspiracy lies across the capital and no one can be trusted, not even Silasta’s ruling council. It also appears that the person who killed the Chancellor is still at large within the city and is aiming to poison Tain as well. As Jovan utilises all his skill to protect his friend, his sister Kalina searches for the traitors hiding inside their walls.
City of Lies is Australian author Sam Hawke’s debut novel and represents an outstanding first outing from a remarkable new talent. This ambitious book contains a fantastic plot, with some unique story elements and an elaborate thriller narrative that combines perfectly with the book’s overarching fantasy narrative. This is the first book in Hawke’s planned Poison War series, and is focused on two separate point-of-view characters, Jovan and Kalina, who each narrate around half the book.
This book contains an amazing and extremely compelling overarching thriller narrative that sees the protagonist attempt to unravel the conspiracies surrounding their city. Hawke has put a lot of work into creating an elaborate and multilayered plot that draws the reader in with its significant intrigue. The is so much for the reader to discover as the protagonists try to work out who the army attacking them is, what their motives are, and how the siege relates to the secrets of the ruling class. This intrigue-driven storyline is amped up even more once it is revealed that the person who poisoned the chancellor might not be a member of the army camped outside the city. Hawke presents the reader with a number of likely suspects, most of whom are on the city’s ruling council, as well as a range of interesting and plausible motives for the betrayal. The full extent of the interwoven conspiracies is quite impressive, and Hawke presents an extremely captivating storyline of the protagonists unravelling the plot that is guaranteed to pull in the reader’s full attention. This is definitely a high point of this fantastic book.
One of City of Lies’ standout features is Hawke’s substantial focus on poisons and role the main character plays in protecting the city’s ruler from harmful substances. At the start of the story, the Chancellor and the protagonists’ uncle are both poisoned and killed by an unknown toxin. Jovan, who already served Tain as his ‘proofer’, a combination food taster, poison master, and trusted personal chef, spends the rest of the book trying to defend Tain from a poisoner he knows is out there, who apparently has access to a poison he has no idea how to detect or cure. The battle of wits between Jovan and the poisoner is an intense part of the book’s narrative, and the reader can feel the desperation that Jovan feels trying to keep his friend and, by extension, his city alive. There are some great scenes throughout this book as Jovan attempts to work out how poison could be administered to Tain, as well as trying to work out potential cures and solutions to the poison’s victims.
In addition to examining the tension that the book’s poison elements elicit, Hawke also spends a significant amount of time exploring the various toxins of her universe and the techniques of the book’s poison ‘proofers’. The descriptions of these skills in training is utterly fascinating, and the author has come up with some amazing ideas that prove to be enthralling for the reader. In addition, Hawke has chosen to deepen the audience’s interest and knowledge of her universe’s poisons by including a page of the protagonist’s ‘proofer tome’ before each chapter in the book. These pages contain a description of the poison, what effects it has when administrated and what clues the proofer can use to identify the poison in food, such as taste or texture. This is a fun addition that also contains some information relevant to the book’s plot, and the readers will find themselves deeply exploring the lore being presented to them. Another cool feature was the way in which Jovan uses his knowledge and cache of poisons in an offensive manner against his opponents to compensate for his lack of martial skill. There are some fantastic scenes where Jovan uses a range of different substances in the middle of battles, as well as some excellent sequences where he doses potential opponents in advance of a confrontation.
Special mention should also be given to the wonderful fantasy setting that Hawke has created for City of Lies. The vast majority of the plot is set within the capital of Silasta, a large city that has a reputation and preference for culture and the arts, whilst viewing violence and warfare as a distasteful profession. The author does an amazing job describing this city’s many wonders, whilst at the same time creating a unique societal setup that plays brilliantly into the story’s intriguing elements. While the focus of this book is solely within the nation of Sjona, expect the sequels to follow adventures in other countries mentioned.
The siege elements of this book are also very enjoyable and offer another interesting point to this fantastic book. I’m always a fan of a good siege storyline, especially when it’s told from the point of view of the defenders. The parts of the book that focus on the siege are extremely well written and provide the book with some substantial action sequences. It is also fun to see how a city mostly made up of peace-loving artists and performers can defend itself without an army to help. Hawke produces some great ideas for her defenders, which also ties into the fantastic poison elements above, when the protagonists use their knowledge to create some defences for their city.
Overall, City of Lies is an intrigue-studded masterpiece of a fantasy novel that combines together a range or magnificent story elements with an excellent setting and an addictive overarching thriller narrative. Hawke’s use of poisons as a key plot point is just incredible and represents one of the most interesting parts of this book, and I am intrigued to see how she will continue to use poisons in future entries in this series. This is a five-star debut from Hawke, and I would wholeheartedly recommend City of Lies to any fans of the fantasy genre.