City of Bones by Martha Wells

I went looking for more from the back catalog of the author of the Murderbot Diaries, and here we are with the rather hard-to-find City of Bones. It went by quickly at nearly 400 pages; I found it absorbing.

Wells creates a fictional fantasy world, post-apocalypse, and the apocalypse here involves godlike creatures, magical Mages, and something a bit climate-change-analogous, with fires and blistering heat and arid destruction. A new race of not-quite-humans was created in this process who can tolerate these extreme conditions better than regular humans (who have also survived); humans, naturally, treat these krismen as inferior and discriminate against them. (Kris also have pouches that are involved somehow with sex and reproduction, a thread that doesn’t get quite adequately explored; I wonder if Wells had a sequel in mind?) Our action here is set in a city with a clear caste system. It is physically arranged in eight tiers, and those on top are the elite, while the lower tiers are populated by the dirty and the poor. Water is at a great premium. There are classes of intimidating Patricians and enforcers including Trade Inspectors (who can arrest and abuse anyone who disrupts capitalism), Warders (practitioners of magic who serve the Elector or ruler), and the privileged scholars of the Academia.

Our protagonist is a kris named Khat, who lives in the city and trades in Ancient relics along with his partner Sagai (not kris), living communally with Sagai and Sagai’s wife and children and other non-relatives on the Sixth Tier. Solitary if not antisocial, Khat left his kris community some years ago for reasons we won’t understand for much of the book. He and Sagai are qualified to be fine scholars but not accepted as such, Khat because he is considered subhuman and Sagai because he is of the wrong race. The novel opens with their exposure to a mysterious stranger who turns out to be both a Warder (scary) and female (quite rare for Warders): Elen. She entangles them in profound intrigues involving relics and magic and the most powerful weirdos in the realm. Eventually it will fall on this small band – Khat, Sagai, Elen, and a surprisingly friendly scholar they meet along the way – to save the world.


City of Bones has significant world-building on its side. I truly liked all of our main characters and rooted for them. The subtle and not-so-subtle misogyny in this world felt both realistic and familiar, and well handled in terms of nuance. As I said, the plot was engaging enough to get lost in. Wells is showing her talents here… but this is no Murderbot, and I’m not surprised that that later series is what she’s won her more mainstream accolades for. Where Murderbot is snappy and pithy and fast-paced, City of Bones wanders more, sometimes into the inscrutable. Not unusually for me with fantasy/sci-fi, I had to let some of the details wash over me without bothering too much about them. And, as with the krismen’s pouch, I felt there was some background information offered that never got fully used. Now, this could be the author fully fleshing out her world, making sure it had three dimensions even where the reader wasn’t necessarily looking. But it also felt (like I said) like maybe there was going to be more to this world – like a series – than ended up happening.

Solid, good read.

Rating: 7 tokens.

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