Title: City of Lies
Author: Sam Hawke
Series: Poison War #1
Jovan wears two faces. Outwardly, he is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible heir. He’s quiet. Forgettable even. But in truth he is a master of poisons and chemicals, trained to protect the Chancellor’s family. Then there is his sister, Kalina. She hides her frustrations behind a mask of serenity. While other women of the city holds positions of power and responsibility, her path is full of secrets and lies – some hidden even from her own brother.
It’s when the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army lays siege to the city that the siblings’ world begins to truly unravel. Trapped and desperate, they soon discover that the society into which they were born and grew up also possesses two faces – for behind the sophistication and the beauty lies an ugly truth – this is a world built on oppression and treachery…
This book does a few things very well: the world building is great. Silasta – the city the story takes place in – isn’t just a thinly disguised historic Venice/London/Paris; it has a unique setting and history. Besides: there’s no historical accurate sexism. Women and men are equal and it’s no big deal – there’s just a throwaway comment when an emissary from a different country appears, that it’s different there but since he doesn’t have a big role, that’s it. (It probably should’t be as refreshing as it is but that’s a dissertation for another day).
The plot is also gripping. It’s a mystery at heart. I’d argue with the “It’s like Agatha Christie” but yeah…somebody got poisoned. And then the city is suddenly under siege, something that hasn’t happened in living memory. It’s not a big mental leap to assume that both are connected but how? Who is the poisoner and how many other people are involved?
Jovan and Kalina aren’t just some random people from the city who get caught up in the whole thing. They have been trained to protect the city and its chancellor from a young age. They are prepared to deal with problems…they just didn’t expect the problems to be that huge and for them to happen that early.
Really that feels very Millennial Mood to me. But it’s still very different from clueless farmboy who just happens to be the chosen one, which is another thing I really liked about the book. I do prefer it if the world-saving is done by people who know what they’re doing.
Now for the big weakness of the book: the characters. The POV chapters alternate between Kalina and Jovan and there is nothing distinctive about their voices. At one point I put the book down mid-chapter, forgot who the current POV-character was and then wondered why Kalina was suddenly talking so much about poisons before realising that this was actually a Jovan-chapter. That’s…not good.
Then there were all the side-characters which were all really hard to keep apart, especially the city council. There are about a dozen of them and…well they’re also the suspect pool for the poisoning/treason and it’s kind of hard to guess along or just follow a whodunit if you cannot tell the suspects apart.
So that’s really a rather big but. It’s also a first novel, so I’m willing to give the author another try and read the sequel because I’m curious how things will continue (admittedly mostly for the city and the politics and only a bit for the characters but I still want to know).