City of Lies by Sam Hawke

City of Lies is an incredible fantasy whodunnit novel by debut author Sam Hawke. It’s the kind of book that starts off with a simple premise – the Chancellor has been poisoned in a closed room – then gradually picks up, with problems and mysteries stacking up until you hit a critical mass of questions and everything starts to fall into place.

City of Lies is hugely character driven throughout and would have suffered if not for it’s refreshing main characters. Jovan is the Chancellor’s secret food proofer and chemist. His, and his family’s, job is to check any food the Chancellor is to eat and detect possible poisons within. He is devout in his duties and takes great honour (a central tenet of their culture) in putting himself in harm’s way for his friend. Jovan also suffers from quite serious OCD that requires him to move and act, such as counting steps, in groups of eight and can debilitate him when he loses control over his impulses.

“The longer this situation went on, the more the compulsions built up…there were five different patterns: pacing, hands squeezing, toes scrunching, thighs tensing and teeth clicking. Counting sets of eight for each muscle group took all my concentration”

Kalina is Jovan’s elder sister and would have originally been the proofer in the family if it wasn’t for her chronic weakness. She tires very quickly and cannot stand up to gentle poisons. Throughout her chapters, it’s clear that this affects her mentally and along with Jovan’s well meaning but sometimes overbearing nature, she is always pushing herself to do more and proving her worth. Both characters have these serious illnesses and it could have been so easy to write them in a shallow way, as if just adding flavour, but Hawke pulled off the representation with aplomb. Being inside both characters’ heads lets us see that they are always affected by these conditions which are manifesting repeatedly and often at quite inopportune times. It becomes clear that Kalina and Jovan have some level of control over their illnesses and will never stop pushing against their limitations.

Interestingly while the Chancellor, Tain, doesn’t have any POV chapters he’s still very much an equally main character. It’s a testament to the authors skill that the reader can be as attached to him as the other two while only seeing a third-person view of him. All three characters work excellently together – none have a secret agenda and they’re all genuinely good people who want the best for everyone (going to great lengths to achieve peace, with patience to rival monks).

I have a couple of minor issues with the book, the pace suffers a bit just over half way through. There’s an army on their doorstep and everyone keeps reminding each other that they could crash through at any time but fortunately the army just chills outside for days. It’s never fully explained why they sat back for about five days but it was awfully convenient for the main characters as they had some serious in-house problems at the time.

There’s also some romance angst that’s just not needed. The romance in general is done well and the platonic friendships between the siblings and between them and Tain are excellent. It could have been easy to add some romance subplot between Tain and Kalina but keeping them as close friends was a breath of fresh air. However, there’s this angsty section that feels so unnecessary, it didn’t add anything to the relationship and made my eyes roll out their sockets.

Regardless, these issues are hardly worth worrying about since City of Lies is sublime in every other respect. It touches on some real-world issues like xenophobia and us-versus-them mentalities without getting preachy. The book highlights how easy it is to ignore the suffering of people not in your vicinity then just shut them down as lesser once they’re forced to turn violent.

“They had looked healthy enough, and had waved back so, nothing had challenged my basic assumption that an oppressed people would look thing and cowed and starving”

Throughout the book, the main characters are trying to find an explanation to the mysterious death of the Chancellor. Right off the bat, there’s only so many suspects but with barely anything to go on, the three characters are baffled. With occasional poisonings and red herrings, and despite some solid deductions made by the three, the mystery kept me guessing up until all was revealed. I’m not too versed in the mystery genre but that plus the mysterious is-it-real-maybe lore and the good, honourable characters made City of Lies a thrilling read. A sequel to this book isn’t strictly necessary but if there is one, I’ll be first in line.

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