Australian author Sam Hawke’s debut City of Lies was one of the best fantasy books of 2018. A fact confirmed by its haul of nominations and awards. That book told a complete story of a civil war in the city of Silasta and the role of siblings Jovan and Kalina in not only ending that war but exposing the exploitation that was partly its cause. But there was more to the war that mere civil unrest. Hanging over the resolution of City of Lies was a feeling that Jovan and Kalina had only peeled back one layer of the onion. Readers were left satisfied that matters had been resolved but left hanging by all of the questions that were left unanswered. Given that City of Lies was subtitled as “A Poison War” novel, it could only be assumed that this was not actually the end.
The sequel, Hollow Empire, opens two years and four months after the end of City of Lies. For those who may be a little hazy on the events of City of Lies, Hawke delivers a recap in an enjoyable and non-exposition way, having her main cast attend a play based on those events (a similar technique used to great effect in the Avatar, the Last Airbender episode “The Ember Island Players”).
Jovan, himself trained and secretly employed as poison taster to the Chancellor, has started training his heir and younger cousin Didja, who is thirteen when the narrative rejoins the action. His sister, Kalina, trained in more of the craft of espionage, is slated to be the next ambassador to the neighbouring misogynistic and worryingly expansionist Talafan Empire.
The bulk of the action of this book takes place during and just after the karodee festival. Karodee is a week-long celebration involving sport, art and masquerade to which Chancellor Tain has invited representatives of all of Silasta’s trading partners. (While maps are overused in fantasy novels, now that the story has referenced so many places beyond Silasta, a map of the world in the next volume might be useful). The chaos and free-wheeling nature of the festival makes it more difficult for Jovan and Kalina to protect Tain from a suspected assassin and there is an emerging feeling that wheels are turning to bring them down especially when an attempt is made to frame Jovan for a drug-fuelled murder.
As with the previous book, Hawke does not spare her characters from pain or tough decisions as they struggle to comprehend the threat facing them and their city. What initially felt a little YA in City of Lies, given the main characters’ ages and experience, moves into decidedly more adult territory here with drug use, blackmail, gruesome deaths and, as the book goes on, some big scenes of destruction and devastation. But there is also plenty of diplomatic manoeuvring and tentative alliance building both within the city council, full of people who still have reason to hate the pair, and with the foreign dignitaries also caught up in the mayhem. This is fantasy more along the lines of the scheming and negotiation of Game of Thrones rather than epic Lord of the Rings-style models – while it is set in a fantasy world and there is a smattering of magic and the calling of spirit forces, Hawke’s primary focus is on people and how they interact with each other personally and politically.
Hollow Empire is a great entry in this series. It tops City of Lies for its complexity and its capacity to payoff long running plot threads. Hawke has supreme understanding of her world and how it works, including the various different types of magic and magic users. She also once again delivers what feels like a complete story in which all of the short-term, internal mysteries are solved and some long running secrets are revealed but leaves the danger hanging in the distance and the feeling that there is much more to be learnt as this series progresses.