RogerBW's Blog

City of Bones, Martha Wells 28 April 2023

1995 post-apocalyptic fantasy. Charisat is the greatest of the cities in the Great Waste, and a centre for the trade of Ancient relics. Khat and Sagai are relic-dealers, as much as they can be when (as non-citizens) it would be illegal for them to use coinage. But a Patrician demands Khat's services as a guide in the Waste…

My word this holds together well. Khat is a krismen, human-like beings created by the Ancients for unknown reasons, but now regarded as unthinking inferiors. And there's a lot of that: Charisat is strictly hierarchical, with its Patricians and its Warders (magicians whose magic drives them mad); and one of the ongoing themes here is that Elen, a Warder and Patrician, regards the authorities of the city as basically on her side, while Khat knows from experience that they aren't on his, so when Elen casually wants to take him to see the Chief Warder Khat's main thoughts are of how to escape. Each of them gradually learns the reality of the other, beyond the stereotypes they've had all their lives.

There's splendid world-building of course, but I also give points for not making a city in the desert a pseudo-Arabian one – there are some physical concessions to the heat, but politically it's rather more like Rome in the days of dictatorship, with magicians and fortune-tellers and ghosts.

I can see paths here that Jemisin would later follow in the Broken World series, about the mindset that being a slave or something like it forces you into, but I find Wells a more engaging writer – and there's a story here beyond the story of being a slave, because the masters here don't intend to be cruel, they just don't even notice that there's a problem and become cruel as a result.

Things get off to a bit of a slow start, but the pace picks up effectively as the story goes on, and I like all of these people even with their blind spots.

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