City of Bones by Martha Wells

When I sat down to read City of Bones it was just what the doctor ordered: an immersive fantasy adventure that wasn’t too terribly obvious, but that wasn’t exploding with structural or thematic ambition, not trying to expand the genre or blow the reader away with stylistic genius. That willingness to let the book be what it is gives Wells space to spring some surprises as the story develops.

City of Bones by Martha Wells

One additional interesting aspect of City of Bones as a book is that the current version is a 2022 revision — Wells does not say how heavily — of the novel that was first published in 1995. She writes that when the first version went out of print, the rights came back to her and she offered it to “a few other publishers, but no one was interested.” She doesn’t speculate as to why, but adds that City of Bones is “a secondary world post-magical-apocalypse-ecological-disaster with a nonhuman main character, a fantasy on the edge of science fiction, grim and dark but not grimdark, with steam technology but not steampunk, weird but not new weird.” All of that is true, and suggests that publishers might have wondered how to sell the book, at least before Murderbot meant a lot more people willing to read a Martha Wells book on the strength of her name alone.

The City of Bones is Charisat, the bustling eight-tiered main city of a trading league situated between the desert Waste and the Last Sea. The novel’s world is mostly blasted, used up by the Ancients whose magic and technology allowed them to soar to astonishing heights but who left precious little in their wake. In their last years, the Ancients knew that the spirits they had summoned were killing their world, but it was too late to reverse the process. Instead, some of their mages poured great energy into creating the krismen, near-humans who could survive in the Waste. They also left behind Remnants, structures within vast stone monoliths whose purpose has been lost in the intervening centuries. The humans who lived through the great disasters eventually built cities, and Charisat is one of the greatest of these. Its layers directly correspond to social status: struggle for mere existence among the docks of the Eighth Tier, the leisured life of the Patricians up on the Third and higher Tiers, the exalted heights of the Elector’s court of the First.

Wells’ story follows Khat and Sagai, residents of the hardscrabble Sixth, traders in relics of the Ancients. They are both outsiders in Charisat. Khat is one of the very few kris who live among humans in a city, rather than in the kris Enclave far out in the Waste. Sagai, for his part, is from one of the other cities, a younger son and not wealthy enough to buy a place in his home’s Guild of Scholars. He has brought his young family with him to Charisat to put his learning in service of commerce in the relic trade, in hope of making enough money to return and join the Guild. The two of them are partners in an enterprise that skirts legality — and Wells shows early on how enforcement by Trade Inspectors can be swift and deadly — but lets them live in a certain amount of security among the teeming masses of the Sixth Tier. They’re more tied down than Fafhrd and the Mouser but their partnership has some similarities.

Then one day Khat receives an offer he can hardly refuse. He’s asked to accompany a group out to the Remnant nearest to Charisat, to put his kris skills at their disposal in the Waste, and to use his knowledge of relics and Ancient lore once they reach their destination. The group claims to be Patricians, but Khat readily identifies one of their number as a Warder, a magic user personally sworn to the Elector’s service, an enforcer of order with essentially no restraints on their power, unthinkably higher in status. Khat fully expects that someone in the party will kill him once he has told them what they want to know. He agrees to go with them because he expects that they would kill him immediately if he refused. And who knows, maybe the horse will learn to sing.

Instead, the group is attacked by pirates of the Waste just as they reach the Remnant. Khat and the Warder, whose name is Elen, become reluctant and uneasy allies. With that, Khat has a way to stay alive, but at the cost of being drawn ever deeper into the intrigues and magical battles that are consuming the city’s literal highest levels. His work drags in Sagai as well, and endangers everyone they care about. There’s also the small matter that at least one of the factions are trying to harness the magics of the Ancients, the very forces that laid waste to the world before and might well do so again.

It’s a solid, well-crafted tale. The characters feel like real people, each with their own motivations and oddities. They didn’t bend for the sake of the plot; instead, the competing personalities shaped the course of events, even if the overall contour of the story was familiar. One nice thing that happened is that when some characters attained their goal and had the resources to take themselves out of the main storyline, that is exactly what they did. Wells didn’t bend them out of shape just to keep them in the story, which I think too many genre authors might have done. At other junctions of City of Bones Wells allows her characters to stay true to themselves rather than follow the strictures of a fantasy novel, and I appreciated the lack of cliché; it was only her second novel, and she might well have given in to convention. Of course City of Bones is a fantasy novel — exactly what I wanted when I sat down to read it — so the dangers escalate, the heroes get into and out of scrapes, and eventually play key roles in events well above their initial station. It provided everything I was looking for, and came to a satisfying ending where not all was well, but enough was.

Re-reading Wells’ note about the book’s slightly checkered publishing history, I remembered my first encounter with A Game of Thrones. It would have been 1999, and A Clash of Kings, the second book in George R.R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire, had just come out in paperback. To get readers involved in the series, the publishers had decided to offer A Game of Thrones, a fat 700-page paperback, for 99¢. They had obviously decided to make a big investment in Martin’s series, but it’s instructive to consider that Thrones did not make it onto the New York Times bestseller list until more than a decade later, when the television series became a smash hit. Many millions of people have enjoyed Martin’s tales, but there was also a set of decisions to devote the resources to giving them a chance to discover Westeros. The first edition of Thrones came out two years after the first edition of City of Bones, and I wonder if there isn’t a parallel universe somewhere in which Wells sketched out five more books in the world of City of Bones, where fandoms emerged to take up the causes of the different Tiers and factions of Charisat as they have done with the Houses in Martin’s stories, where as many people try to make Charisat’s climate and economics work sensibly as they have with Westeros. Maybe the upcoming Murderbot TV series will make Wells as famous and as wealthy as Martin has become; maybe it could have happened decades earlier and Charisat would now be as well known as King’s Landing. Funny ol’ business, publishing.

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    • McDowski on June 15, 2024 at 1:36 pm
    • Reply

    Not sure why you think ASoIaF wasn’t a hit before the TV show.

    The first book wasn’t an instant bestseller, sure, but book 2 onwards all made the NYT Bestseller list long before the TV show, which in turn boosted the sales of the first book, as well.

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