I’m trying a new author, Sam Hawke. Her City of Lies is pretty good so far, and after 145 pages (of 550) I plan to keep reading. But already I’ve spotted a few elements that just don’t quite fit together.
Building a believable, solidly constructed fantasy world is not easy.
Hawke’s city, Silasta, seems not to be on Earth. There are people, but the animals are unfamiliar. The culture seems more Asian than European, and that’s a good thing. The families are matrilineal, the people are dark-skinned, and so on.
The brother-sister narrators, Jovan and Kalina, are the friends and ultimately protectors of a young man named Tain, who starts out as the heir to the throne and, following a mysterious assassination, ascends the throne himself. Jovan has been well trained by his uncle to detect poisons. His uncle is both a close adviser to the old ruler and a surreptitious food taster. When both the ruler and Jovan’s uncle die of poisoning, Jovan takes over his uncle’s role, protecting Tain.
Apparently none of the other nobles are to know that the ruler employs a food taster. And that’s the first bit where the parts don’t quite fit together. If poisoning is common enough that the ruler employs a food taster — and not just a disposable servant or slave but a high-ranking noble who is trained to detect subtle poisons — then plainly assassination is a common enough danger that it should excite no comment for the ruler to employ a taster.
The social gathering at which the poisonings occur has more the flavor of a cocktail party than of a royal audience. There isn’t enough pomp or circumstance.
Tain himself seems to have little awareness of his royal status. In the opening scene he gets into a brief street fight with a drunk who has a knife. It’s bad enough that he’s tramping down the street with no palace guards to protect him from, oh, you know, assassins, that type of thing; but then he risks his royal neck for no compelling reason.
Shortly the city is besieged by what appears to be an army of irate peasants. And there’s Tain (who by this time is the ruler) up on the wall swinging a sword at the attackers. This is good plotting for the young reader, I’m sure, but it does paint Tain as rather an idiot. The city is depending on him to provide both stability and effective planning, but no, he’s out on the wall, where he could all too easily be chopped down by one of the invaders.
The city of Silasta is described as having been at peace for quite a long time. There are city walls because of wars in the bad old days. Okay, that’s fine. But during a century or two of peace, the city has not spread beyond the walls. When the army of peasants arrives, the city folks slam shut the gates, and then they’re inside, safe for the moment, while the irate peasants are outside. Our own experience with walled cities here on Earth would strongly suggest that there would be whole neighborhoods of poor people outside the walls — but no. Hawke’s world-building takes no account of such a normal demographic or economic trend.
At the point I’ve reached in the story, we still have no idea why the peasants are revolting, but two things are apparent. First, the nobles in the city (who own the vast tracts of land where the peasants work and live) have had not a clue about any impending unrest. (This seems to be a plot point. It’s unlikely that the nobility could all be so clueless, but I guess it’s possible.) Second, this army of peasants, though some of them are using hoes as weapons, is quite remarkably well organized. Communications between the city and the nobles’ estates have been severed by the rebels. Messengers sent out to seek help are quickly captured. The peasants are not simply a mob, they’re marching in an organized way. They’ve brought ladders for scaling the city walls, even.
None of this makes much sense. A populace so deeply disaffected that they could be roused into attacking their own capital city would have been in a visible ferment for years. There would have been riots. The ringleaders of the riots would have been summarily hanged by the nobles. There would have been widespread suffering across a vast swath of countryside, and even if the nobles didn’t care, they would have known about it.
Also, if they’re well enough organized to march in from several directions simultaneously, thereby surrounding the city, why didn’t the people planning the revolt plant a few dozen agents inside the city, who could wreak havoc on the improvised defenses? Great planning and poor planning, cheek by jowl.
The parts of the story — a poisoned ruler, a peasant army, an exotic culture, and so on — are all good, but they don’t hang together well. I’d like to say I’m confident that in the end it will all make sense, but I doubt it.
There’s a dual lesson here for writers — some good news and some bad news. The good news is, you can get away with slamming together some exciting ingredients and still get your novel published by Tor. The bad news is, at least a few readers will notice that your world-building is not going to win any awards.