Series: City of Spires #1
Also by this author: Viral Airwaves
A hundred and thirty years have passed since Arathiel last set foot in his home city. Isandor hasn’t changed—bickering merchant families still vie for power through eccentric shows of wealth—but he has. His family is long dead, a magical trap has dulled his senses, and he returns seeking a sense of belonging now long lost.
Arathiel hides in the Lower City, piecing together a new life among in a shelter dedicated to the homeless and the poor, befriending an uncommon trio: the Shelter’s rageful owner, Larryn, his dark elven friend Hasryan, and Cal the cheese-loving halfling. When Hasryan is accused of Isandor's most infamous assassination of the last decade, what little peace Arathiel has managed to find for himself is shattered. Hasryan is innocent… he thinks. In order to save him, Arathiel may have to shatter the shreds of home he’d managed to build for himself.
Arathiel could appeal to the Dathirii—a noble elven family who knew him before he disappeared—but he would have to stop hiding, and they have battles of their own to fight. The idealistic Lord Dathirii is waging a battle of honour and justice against the cruel Myrian Empire, objecting to their slavery, their magics, and inhumane treatment of their apprentices. One he could win, if only he could convince Isandor’s rulers to stop courting Myrian’s favours for profit.
In the ripples that follow Diel’s opposition, friendships shatter and alliances crumble. Arathiel, the Dathirii, and everyone in Isandor fights to preserve their homes, even if the struggle changes them irrevocably.
First of all: are you looking for an all-queer large ensemble cast political high fantasy story? Because that’s what City of Strife is and it is absolutely glorious and you may very well love it to little bits and pieces the way that I did. (Except a couple of particular characters that are not lovable. Especially not the git who hurt my precious purest too good for this world adorbs cinnamon roll. NO FORGIVENESS. No one hurts the precious cinnamon roll. NO ONE. But, uh, anyway. Let’s… move on, shall we. I have feels about that one scene.)
Okay, so! First, a few things that I didn’t like quite as much. It’s heavily inspired by D&D, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but it meant that it took me a little while to get settled into the book because I wasn’t expecting the influence to be as present and strong. If you’re absolutely deadset against D&D-inspired settings, you may struggle with the setting here. I also wasn’t a big fan of the Well. It’s incredibly important to Arathiel and how he comes to be in Insandor now, but it was never terribly clear to me what the Well actually was or did. Well, beyond the obvious effect it’s had on Arathiel’s person. I would have liked to have gotten just a little more information on what it was supposed to do and what failed (and ideally why), because as it stands I spent every reference of the Well showing up annoyed that I wouldn’t get a clearer image of what its place in the world actually is. I’m really hoping that it’ll show up more in the second book and that I’ll get the information I want and need to slot it into place for me.
Secondly, this book comes with trigger warnings for abuse of all kinds, torture, mind rape, sexual harassment, fantasy racism and… I think that about covers it? Anyway, if you have any of the common triggers please take care when reading, especially with Nevian’s chapters.
That said. This book features an all-queer cast. As in, every single pov character is some flavour of queer and the way that Claudie handles introducing these aspects of people’s characters is absolutely lovely. There are very few instances, if any, where Claudie outright uses the words, yet it’s always extremely clear where the characters fall under the queer umbrella even without them. As I told Claudie a while back, I wish I could use this book in teaching people ways to include queerness casually in fiction because it’s just that deftly done and it’s easily one of my favourite things about the book. (Coincidentally, it’s also something I’ve noted seems to be specific to the way that acespec and arospec authors write characters in general because this is a distinct literary flavour I’ve only had from acespec and/or arospec authors.)
I just… I’ve been avoiding writing this review because I wanted to do what Claudie does with the characters and the descriptions justice, but, of course, being me, that means I’ve now forgotten what I wanted to do and include entirely. Apart from writing essays about the way Claudie tackles it. I remember wanting to write essays on the way acespec and arospec people write differently and this book was going to be a prime example as it strikes me as one of the most accessible to non-aces and non-aros to date in that regard.
Anyway! I should focus on the story. You might think, with a title like City of Strife and a series title like City of Spires that this is a book that centres the city first and foremost, in a way similar to how Unrest‘s narrative focuses on the overlying political climate before it narrows in on the characters’ personal lives. Put differently, you might expect that City of Strife keeps a pace or two of distance between itself and the main characters in order to tell us a story about the city these characters live in at the expense of getting to know their personalities well.
You’d be absolutely wrong. Claudie focuses on life in the city by focusing on the lives of these characters and how they intersect with one another. You’ll get perspectives from the upper classes of society, both the ruling class and their, ah, servants, perspectives from the lower classes, both those entirely working class and those born from an upper-class and lower-class union, perspectives from outsiders, both people who love(d) the city they’ve known and people who want to tear it down brick by brick… That kind of mirroring and layering is visible throughout the novel.
For example: let’s return to Arathiel, who is the first main character we meet. He left the city at least a century ago to find a cure for his sister and has, through some kind of magic known as the Well (see my earlier complaints) stayed alive to return now. Most everyone who knows him has died, so we get to see Arathiel through the eyes of people who never knew him at all. But! There is also at least one character who remembers him, which offers the reader a chance to see a different side of Arathiel and people’s interactions with him, not least because one of the differences is that Arathiel doesn’t go about telling people that he belongs to one of the noble houses in the city. It’s that kind of difference that we see reflected almost everywhere in the novel, creating this cast-sized little kaleidoscope of different ideas and perceptions that all weave together to form not just a view of what the city is like, but also to form an idea of what the characters are like. It’s an incredibly skilled weaving of narratives, especially when you notice how closely interwoven some of the plots actually are.
The story is, as I think I said, off to a relatively slow start thanks to all of this. There’s a lot to set up and introduce, but if you enjoy reading for characters or relationships, you’ll be in for a real treat because it’s a slowness that you can savour. And you’ll be rewarding with quite a few caper hijinks and small personal quests for you to read along with and try to explore.
It took me a little while to settle into it, but I really really liked it and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see it appear on my end-of-year favourites list. It’s just that good and so much fun to read and I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a nice epic fantasy with a political slant and a diverse ensemble cast.
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