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Review: City of Lies by Sam Hawke (Poison Wars #1)

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Great book with one hell of an ending (warning: partial cliffhanger). I have finished it at a complete loss for words. Still, I must try.

Honor. […] How is it you are all so obsessed with one half of our creed and you apply it so strangely? You have twisted it into yet another system of rank, a way of measuring who is more valuable than whom. Honor is not a score in a game, Jovan. It is how you show yourself to other people and the regard in which you hold them, which in turn feeds the regard in which they hold you.

Silasta is a prosperous, safe city, seemingly a haven for artists and craftsmen. But when the chancellor is poisoned and the country’s populace starts besieging the city, they slowly learn that the comfort came at a terrible price. It’s quite rare to have a political intrigue mystery that’s both nuanced and has characters who are genuinely good people trying to do their best, but Hawke manages it wonderfully. Neither side is unsympathetic, the story could have been written from the rebels’ viewpoint just as easily. And the themes of xenophobia, honour, religion, family…it manages to be relevant without feeling preachy.

The characters aren’t without flaws. Jovan can be a bit self-absorbed and quite patronising towards his sister. Tain is impulsive and his optimism and willingness to see the best in people get him in trouble as much as they make him easy to like. Kalina’s desperate to prove she’s not useless. She struggles with chronic fatigue and various other health issues which make others see her as weak and helpless and her unable to act as a proofer, but that doesn’t mean she’s not skilled in other areas. Jovan had OCD, with visible compulsions. Both influence the story. They all make crap choices that massively screw them over sometimes, but they aren’t stupid, they don’t ignore the obvious. And their empathy and willingness to listen to the other side and negotiate and try to resolve conflicts the peaceful way first made them grow on me.

It’s definitely a slow burn. Until about halfway through, I was intrigued enough to continue, intrigued enough to read it until 3 am in the morning, but it didn’t draw me in completely. Things happened, but at a fairly leisurely pace. After a certain point, however, as the characters truly began to put together 1) who the killer was and 2) why are the people rebelling, as things got complicated, it turned into a rollercoaster and I could barely tear my eyes away.

The worldbuilding has a few interesting touches as well, like the description of one imaginary poison before each chapter, and the matrilineal inheritance system, where the father of the child isn’t important at all and everyone’s raised by their mothers and uncles. It made for quite an interesting twist and it’s fairly well thought-out in terms of implications (what happens if someone dislikes their family?).

The only issue I had with it was that the voices of the two alternating POVs are near indistinguishable for most of the book. If I put the book down mid-chapter and came back to it later, I was often confused until I either flipped back to the start of the chapter or something small eventually have it away. It didn’t prevent me forming a connection to the characters, it got slightly better, but it was irritating.

Enjoyment: 4.5/5
Execution: 4/5

Recommended to: fans of political intrigue, those looking for likable sweetheart characters, stories light on the magic, or political systems that are not monarchies
Not recommended to: fans of fast-paced books (I’ve sure been reading a lot of slow stuff lately, haven’t I?)

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