Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Book Review: City of Bones

I’m a big fan of a kinda-genre of literature I jokingly refer to as “anthropology-porn”. Whether it’s Colleen McCullough’s intimate portrayal of life at the end of the Roman Republic, or Walter M. Miller, Jr’s musings on the clash between faith and politics in a world struggling back from nuclear destruction, I love me some wallowing in the daily lives and exotic mores of places that were or could be in a universe next door to our own. My favorite Elric stories are those in which we catch (frustratingly brief) glimpses of Melnibonean culture and Jacqueline Carrey’s exercise in alternative theologies are the icing on the cake of her exceptionally intriguing world-building.

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.

5 comments:

tegeus said...

You convinced me. I just loaded it on my e-reader.

Brendan said...

I remember reading this one a long time ago.

Wasn't the "bones" more about necromancy?

In any case, I recall enjoying it, but not much about the plot or characters.

anarchist said...

You might like Ursula Le Guin's Four Ways to Forgiveness then. It has a lot of details about a fictional society of slaves who freed themselves in a rebellion, but whose society is based on how they lived in slavery. It's quite different to the real example of Haiti, but also very convincing.

trollsmyth said...

tegeus: Glad to hear it! I hope you enjoy it.

Brendan: Yep. Burning bones is part of a soothsaying/future-seeing ritual. There's some disagreement on whose bones work best.

anarchist: Yeah, le Guin is another favorite, but I don't think I've read Four Ways yet. I'll track it down.

Dariel Quiogue said...

Loved this one too. You just reminded me I have to get my copy from my old house :-)