City of Lies is one of the few books longer than 500 pages whose pacing isn’t actually terrible. That’s the thing I liked the most about it: it never dragged, and even when the story itself wasn’t really captivating – but it usually was – I always wanted to keep reading, because the mystery element was really intriguing.
In all the other aspects, this book was a solid debut, but I can’t say it stands out. I really appreciated that, despite being set during a siege (and we see the story from within), it didn’t stand out for being incredibly depressing like other hyped 2018 debuts, but I feel like it could have been so much better.
It wasn’t bad, I just wanted more from the characterization, the worldbuilding and the ending.
City of Lies follows two PoVs, Jov, the new Chancellor’s poison taster, and his sister Kalina, who didn’t become the poison taster herself because she was too sickly.
I really appreciated seeing disabled characters in a fantasy novel (Jov has anxiety and OCD, Kalina is chronically ill), but as characters they were pretty unremarkable: Jov is anxious and loyal to his friend Tain, now the Chancellor, and knows a lot of poisons; Kalina is physically weak but also mentally strong and very stealthy – and their characterization never becomes more than that; the characters of a book of 500+ pages should be much more developed.
I liked seeing their friendship with Tain and with each other – I love stories about siblings – but as I said, that wasn’t enough.
Also, I wanted more poisoning! Each chapter starts with the description of a poison (and I always loved these parts), but most of them were never relevant to the story and that was disappointing.
The worldbuilding had some aspects I absolutely loved and some that didn’t work as well as they could have.
Let’s start with the good: City of Lies is the only book I’ve ever read whose worldbuilding was explicitly not amatonormative, as in, families aren’t based on romantic love and people don’t marry – instead, people raise their children with their own siblings, and it’s considered bad luck for men not to have sisters because that means they won’t have nephews to raise. It’s a very interesting set up, and I really wish it was explored more, possible bad consequences included (if you have an awful blood family, you’re stuck with them, even more than in our world?)
This book also explores themes of privilege and religious hate, but does so only from the point of view of very privileged characters. Yes, there’s a relevant side character who is not, and I liked her, but I can’t say this is a kind of narrative I’m that interested in.
Another thing I liked was that there wasn’t any homophobia in this world – there are women who are in relationship with women and men who like men – and many of the side characters were queer. But.
Spoiler-y negative thoughts on the queer rep
All of the queer characters were underdeveloped, and when all main characters are straight (or: it isn’t stated that they’re queer, I don’t know if heteronormativity is a thing here?) and the only relevant romance is m/f, I really don’t want the traitor character to be (explicitly, this time) queer.
Also, the villain was very underdeveloped, and so were their motivations – from what I knew, they didn’t make that much sense. The mystery wasn’t predictable for me, and I usually love when that happens, but the political intrigue here managed to be underwhelming anyway.
On the more positive side, I can say that while I wanted more from this world and the characters, I did like them, and I loved everything about the poisoning plotline but its resolution – enough that, for most of the story, I didn’t want to put the book down.
My rating: ★★★¼