★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Watch out for Martha Wells–I get the feeling she is playing with a different Dungeons and Dragons set than the rest of the world. Rarely has someone in fantasy so consistently impressed me with inventiveness. In City of Bones, she does it again.
City of Bones is set in the city of Charisat, one of the few major cities remaining after an apocalypse has nearly destroyed humanity. Cities are surrounded by a hostile, desert Waste, and survivors rely on the roads of the Ancients to travel from one city to another. In Charisat, Khat, a krisman, and Sagai, a foreign scholar, are bargaining with a relic trader when they are approached by the entourage of a heavily robed but obviously wealthy individual. The group wants guidance to a nearby Ancient Remnant. Of course, Khat has skills as a local expert in Ancient artifacts–but he is all too aware that a kris, he is also expendable. However, there is a debt he’d like to clear and both the guide money and the wealthy patronage could buy him a way out. When the caravan is attacked by pirates in the Waste outside the city, it sets off a chain of complex events that result in Khat working with the mystery person to ‘collect’ two more relics from inside the city of Charisat. The anonymous aristocrat is revealed early on, so I hesitate to say more at the risk of spoilers, but bone prophecies, thievery, the underground market, the academy, ghost spirits–so many elements make this intriguing.
World building is fascinating; no doubt her B.A. in Anthropology has influenced the thoroughness of detail to these societies. There’s a complex cultural mix involved, from the long-dead Ancients to the ‘modern’ survivors, from city residents to Waste-dwellers (rural), high class to untouchable, magic-users and prophets, and even a mix of races/species. Information is parceled out nicely, balanced with action and dialogue. Everyone is working their own angle here, so the possibility of duplicity and lack of shared knowledge keeps suspense high.
“‘He could still be a Trade Inspector trying to trap you somehow,’ Sagai argued as they crossed the court….
‘Then I’ll be honest,’ Khat answered, reaching into the door hole to pop the latch. ‘I’m always honest.’
Sagai snorted. ‘No, you think you’re always honest, and that is not the same thing at all.'”
Characters initially seem to be along somewhat standard stereotypes–Khat is a distrustful but essentially ethical thief, and the aristocrat a somewhat naive but socially and politically powerful magic-user (why hello, Mercedes Lackey). Sagai is nicely done as the level-headed and supportive friend. However, it doesn’t take long before their characters develop unique identities. One of the aspects that I loved was the obvious enthusiasm and reverence Khat, Sagai and others have for the pursuit of knowledge about the Ancients. It reminds me of 19th century explorer-archeologists in Egyptologists who unearthed artifacts to make a living–but also because of the mystery. There’s great little bits of humor as well, particularly from Sagai’s wit:
“‘Why is a clear conscience necessary?’ Sagai asked, not helpfully. ‘All it takes is a confused sense of duty and a disregard for personal survival.'”
One of the fascinating issues is Khat’s identity as a kris. We learn that the Ancients are said to have created them, but details of their secretive society are limited, and justly so, as the magic-using Warders of Charisat are prone to labeling them as ‘souless’ and therefore non-human. Thus, Khat is used to indirectly explore interesting issues about racism and humanity. Khat is also used to invert and explore issues about gender identity. He mentions that he would have been the “second husband” if he stayed in the krismans’ enclave, on the receiving end of all the hard household work and child-rearing. Comments are made by various about his ‘prettiness,’ and the kris’ unusual physiological adaptation means nurturing the young is not a female-only task. Women play a strong active role in this book, at the same level as the men, and its rather refreshing to have characters treated like people instead of gender roles.
I found it an engrossing read satisfying on my favorite fantasy fronts of plotting, characterization and world-building, with complexity in language and ideas. This would be a perfect book for fans of Way of Kings–as well as those like myself who felt Kings lacked action.
Thanks to Mimi for her review, inspiring me to bump it up the TBR pile.