Tuesday, August 07, 2012
So Martha Wells is, of course, one of my favorites. Just recently, I managed to get my hands on a copy of her second novel, City of Bones. It does not disappoint. The world described has been ravaged by an ancient cataclysm. The potent magics of the pre-cataclysm societies are a pale shadow of what they once were, and dangerous to use. Still, there’s wealth to be reaped from the cast-off rubbish and shattered treasures of the past.
Khat is an expert in finding and evaluating the relics of the ancient world, able to read some of the forgotten languages and discern forgeries. His partner is an impoverished scholar working to acquire enough cash to buy a place in the scholarly community. Unfortunately, both are foreigners in the city of Charisat, a town with a fairly thick streak of xenophobia in its culture. Even worse for Khat, he’s not even really human, but a race bioengineered by the wizards who’d survived the cataclysm in order to produce people who were adapted to live in a world ravaged by fire and poor in water.
Wells gives us a portrait of a culture clearly fashioned by its past. There are traces of what must have been before the cataclysm, surrounded by what has clearly been designed to allow humanity to survive in their ravaged world. And she does it gracefully; there are no blobs of tedious exposition or long lectures. Instead, the world is revealed in little things: how the characters treat one another, the architecture and the real-estate market, the value placed on water and all things pertaining to it.
This is the thing I really love about Wells’ work; her fantastical worlds are not trapped in amber, snapshots of a mere moment, but living and breathing and evolving and growing (or dying) places. We get that in spades in City of Bones, wrapped around mysteries that weave together current politics with the ancient past.
My main gripes about the book are on the outside, not the inside. The title, “City of Bones,” lead me to believe this was a book principally about archeology, in which the characters would be sitting in dusty holes in the ground painstakingly revealing skeletons and pottery shards to piece together clues about ancient events. It’s actually a book about intrigue, politics, theft, greed, and murder in which ancient events echo into the present. Most of the book takes place in Charisat, and Khat spends a lot more time scaling walls and ducking down shadowy alleys than he does out in the wilderness, and the book is stronger for it.
The back cover blurb is even worse, invoking a sort of phantasmagorical faux-1,001 Nights feel, with its mention of genies and “silken courtesans and beggars”. Other than taking place in a desert and a very light sprinkling of Egyptian myth, there’s nothing here for the orientalist. The book feels closer in tone to the pulp stories that informed the Warhammer 40k universe, with its blurring of technology and magic, and its order of ancient sorcerer-warriors struggling to hold the line against a seemingly unstoppable tide of entropy.
In fact, I’d heartily recommend you don’t read the back-cover blurb as it does a decent job of spoiling one of the central mysteries of the book. If you hunger for fantastical stories that don’t assume the bog-standard Tolkien-esque tropes of medieval Europe, you’ll best enjoy City of Bones by simply immersing yourself in what it is, and the world Wells has created.