In Food Of The Gods, writer Cassandra Khaw injected an urban fantasy story with a liberal amount of food; something fellow writer Matt Wallace did as well with his Sin Du Jour Affair series [Envy Of Angels, Lustlocked, Pride’s Spell, Idle Ingredients, Greedy Pigs, Gluttony Bay, and Taste Of Wrath ]. Now writer Sam Hawke is following suit with her new high fantasy novel City Of Lies (paperback, Kindle), which, unless I’m mistaken, officially makes food fantasy a recognized genre under the Geneva Conventions. Or something.
Photo Credit: © Kris Arnold Photography
To begin, what is City Of Lies about?
It’s about a brother and sister trained to protect the ruling family by “proofing”: poison testing. When their uncle and the Chancellor are murdered with a previously unknown poison, and the city is besieged by rebels, they have to find the traitor and try to stop the war before the new Chancellor is killed, or the city falls. If you like sieges, mysterious old magic, and decent people trying to survive in a nest of untrustworthy politicians and secret murderers, it might be up your alley.
Where did you get the original idea for City Of Lies and how different is the finished book from that initial concept?
The idea for City Of Lies came out of a bunch of things I had stewing around in my head. I’m basically a Labrador — very food motivated — and I’ve always been interested in the differences in how people experience the taste of certain foods. I also like writing about people who fall on the fringes of the classic fantasy Dungeons & Dragons character range, and I have a real weakness for stories about sibling relationships. Playing with the ideas together led me to my poison taster characters, and the rest of the concept of the story was built around making life more difficult and complicated for them: pitting them against a poisoner with a poison they didn’t know, trapping them all in the suffocating and dangerous environment of a besieged city, and making sure they didn’t know who to trust or what to believe in. Which sounds a bit mean, when I put it like that.
I don’t think the final novel is that different conceptually from the original idea. It’s still, at its core, a story about siblings and friends trying to find their way out of a bad situation without losing each other. Though in terms of actual words written, it got torn apart and put back together in a different order rather a number of times.
City Of Lies is a fantasy novel, but is there a subgenre of fantasy, or a combination of them, that describes the book even better?
It’s…sort of its own thing? It’s a secondary world fantasy, but tighter in scale than a lot of epic fantasy as it has a relatively small cast and most of the story takes place in a single city. And it’s structured like a mystery.
Are there any writers or specific novels that were a big influence on City Of Lies, but are things you wouldn’t consider a big influence on your writing style as a whole?
My grandmother had the full collection of Alastair McLean’s old spy novels which my sister and I read obsessively as children. Arguably not ideal material for a ten-year-old, but my parents, to their eternal credit, never had any rules about what we were allowed to read. I think I picked up a lot about structure, escalating tension and pacing from those books which I put to use in City Of Lies, even though style wise they haven’t got much in common.
What about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, and video games; are there any that had a big impact on City Of Lies?
Not explicitly; most of the secondary world fantasy on TV has a very European/British aesthetic look to it, which wasn’t how I saw my world. But, subconsciously, almost certainly. I probably learned a lot about structure and pacing from watching good TV. And in terms of style, some of the episodes of sci-fi/fantasy shows that had the greatest impact on me have combined the supernatural with the suffocating, closed room mystery, who can you trust, kind of air. Think “Ice“from The X-Files, or “Midnight” from Dr. Who.
But equally I admire what TV can do with characters and relationships and particularly great dialogue, whether sci-fi/fantasy or not. There is in fact a tinyWest Wing reference hidden inCity Of Lies, to amuse me. I’m certain I’ve picked up a ton of influences without being actively aware of it.
In the press materials, it says that City Of Liesis, “…perfect for fans of Scott Lynch [The Lies Of Locke Lamora], Joe Abercrombie [The Blade Itself], Robin Hobb [Assassin’s Apprentice], and Naomi Novik [His Majesty’s Dragon].” I’m guessing you agree, otherwise they wouldn’t have said this, but are there any other writers you’d add to this list?
Well, those are some of the best fantasy writers out there, so I’m not going to object to my book being likened to any of theirs, but it’s a bit hard making a call like that yourself, isn’t it? I’m not sure who I’m like. You’ll have to read it and tell me.
By the way, are you at all worried that people will think City Of Liesis the sequel to Fire And Fury?
I mean, we had to rethink our original cover art, with this orange guy on the front, just in case…
Nah, it’s fine. My book might be full of scheming politicians, entitled wealthy people being surprised that they’re not as beloved as they’d like, and actual murderers, but it’s still a lot nicer than the current U.S. administration.
Now, you’ve already said that City Of Liesis the first book in your Poison War series. But what can you tell us about this series?
There will be at least two books in the Poison War series, with the second one, The Hollow Empire, tentatively due out next August. I originally wrote City Of Lies as a standalone story, and it certainly can be read that way, but there’s a broader story arc connecting the two. Whether there will be more than two depends on how well people like the first one, I suppose.
Obviously, if someone is interested in this series, they should buy City Of Lies now, and then a couple more times to be on the safe side. But do you think they should read City Of Lies now as well, or is there a reason to wait and then read it and The Hollow Empire back to back?
No, there’s no reason to hold off. The main plot of the story is self-contained and is resolved in the book, so you won’t be raging at me about the gap.
We talked earlier about the movies, TV shows, and video games that influenced City Of Lies. But has there been any interest in making City Of Lies into a movie, show, or game?
Not at this stage, but if you know somebody…
Like most fantasy, I think it would struggle as a movie just because of its length, but would make great episodic TV. Like I said, it’s a self-contained story and the unfolding mystery structure lends itself well to an episode structure, I think. Also, since most of the story takes place within a single city, the budget wouldn’t have to factor in ice walls or dragons. Listen up, HBO.
If City Of Lies was to be made into a TV show, who would like to see them cast in the main roles and why?
Well, none of my main characters are written as being outstanding physical specimens. They’re mostly just regular humans. But assuming Hollywood standards, everyone would have the attractive gun fired at them, so… Could I have Dev Patel [Slumdog Millionaire] as Tain, the new Chancellor? And, um, Nathalie Emmanuel [Game Of Thrones] and Sean Teale [Reign] as my sibling protags, Kalina and Jovan. Everyone is ridiculously hot now, are you happy, Hollywood?!
Finally, if someone enjoys City Of Lies, what fantasy novel would you suggest they read while waiting for The Hollow Empire to come out?
There’s a ridiculous amount of good stuff out there at the moment, but if I had to say one…probably the book I’m looking forward to the most this year is Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside, which comes out a bit after mine [August 21st] and is bound to be brilliant.