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Wells, Martha: City of Bones

City of Bones (1995)
Written by: Martha Wells
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 368 (Kindle)

Why I Read It: I read Wells' The Cloud Roads earlier this year and really, really enjoyed it. I'd been chomping at the bit to get the sequel, The Serpent Sea, but waited, hoping there'd be a Kindle sale sometime during the year. In November, The Cloud Roads went on sale, convincing me that it'd only be the first of the trilogy that would get that special treatment, and that I'd just have to get the sequel on my own time. And then Wells' City of Bones was discounted super-cheap for the Kindle. It wasn't The Serpent Sea, no, but it was a Wells book and it was on my wishlist, so why not? Quite the impulse purchase, but I was happy to sit down and read it as soon as it came up in the 2012 queue.

The premise: ganked from Charisat is a city at the Fringe of the Waste, a rocky and treacherous area of desolation formed more than a thousand years ago when a mysterious holocaust drained the sea and destroyed the flourishing civilization of the Ancients. It is a city which survives by trade, and its most valuable merchandise is relics, artifacts from the remains of the Ancient city that once occupied Charisat's present location. Relics are priceless, and in a city where living space is at a premium and water is a scarce and valuable commodity, they are dangerous to own.

Khat, a member of a humanoid race created by the Ancients to survive in the Waste, and Sagai, his human partner, are relic dealers working on the edge of society, trying to stay one step ahead of the Trade Inspectors and to support Sagai's family. When Khat is hired to find relics believed to be part of one of the Ancients' arcane engines, they are both reluctant to become involved. But the request comes from the Warders, powerful mages who serve Charisat's Elector. Khat soon discovers that the deadly politics of Charisat's upper tiers aren't the only danger. The relics the Warders want are the key to an Ancient magic of unknown power, and, as all the inhabitants of Charisat know, no one understands the Ancients' magic.

A beautiful woman and a handsome thief will try to unravel the mysteries of an age-old technology to stop a fanatical cult before they unleash an evil that will topple Charisat, a place where silken courtesans and beggars weave lies side by side, and where the tier that you live on determines how high up the food chain you are.

Spoilers, yay or nay?: Nay. But I will talk at some length about why I wish I hadn't given into impulse, so if you are in a hurry, please skip to "My Rating" and you'll be just fine.

City of Bones was not Wells' debut, but rather her sophomore offering. It's strange, to read an author's early work after reading one of their latest. The last time I did that was with Guy Gavriel Kay: I read Ysabel and loved it, and then I read The Summer Tree and wondered what the hell happened. On one hand, it's a good thing to see how much an author has improved. On the other hand, if I'd started with an earlier book of that Kay's, I might not have read another thing by that author, ever.

So Martha Wells joins that list of authors whose early works I kind of regret reading. And it's not even a bad book. Sitting back, looking at it objectively, I can see commonalities with her current work: the tragic hero, who's always on the outside looking in. The need to belong to a larger community. Interesting fantasy worlds.

Yet with this book…. I hate to call it boring. Yet I was not engaged. At all. Part of it I'm happy to blame on Kindle formatting: this digital copy was littered with little errors: it can't tell the difference between a hyphen and a long dash, for instance, and any time Wells used single quotation marks (' ' instead of " "), one of them would be replaced with the symbol CE, but if those two letters were merged where the ends of the C meets the E. It was bizarre and distracting. There's also a problem recognizing breaks between scenes, as they aren't clearly marked.

And I suppose it didn't help that early on, I thought it was going to be another one of those fantasies that we assume is fantasy until it's revealed that we're actually in Earth's future all along, and that the fantasy world we've been reading was wrought by science gone wrong. I ended up being wrong about this, to an extent, but it definitely kept me from engaging with the internal mystery of the plot: who were the Ancients? Where did the artifacts come from? What will they really build? Because I assumed that I knew what was happening, I didn't care about the answers to those questions.

Which left me to engage with the prose, which isn't as good as Wells' later work, and with the characters, and Khat just really didn't do anything for me (he's such a distant character to the people around him that, in turn, he distances himself from the reader). Especially when compared to Moon from The Cloud Roads, whose conflict was clear from the start and therefore emotional engagement was immediate. The other characters in City of Bones did get some POV time: I appreciated Elen, and she got some great scenes where she held her own as a character, but I never really identified with her, nor really engaged. Same is true with all of the rest of them.

And in some ways, this book sort of struck me as an Indiana Jones meets futuristic fantasy kind of vibe, but minus the nail-biting escapes and adventure. That's not to say characters don't get into trouble, but it has all the excitement of pieces moving across a chessboard, which is to say that if you don't care about the game itself, watching those pieces move is probably a really boring way to spend your time.

My thing is this: I have an interest in art and ancient art. I have an interest in archeology. Trouble is, I had a lot of trouble visualizing the architecture and artifacts that drove this novel. Our character, Khat, is fascinated by this stuff, but I couldn't visualize it (this may be a problem with me and not the author, because she does describe things at great length), which added just another level of dis-engagement.

And speaking of description, Wells never misses an opportunity to show us the difference between the various tiers and how people live. While it's a good thing to do, it got quite grating, because the characters are constantly moving back and forth between tiers, which meant that I was constantly being treated to description I didn't really want every time a transition occurred.

Wells also brings up questions that never get fully answered to my satisfaction. Like why krismen can't be read and whether or not that has anything at all to do with soul. Like why the Master Warder held Elen back rather than let her bloom into her own power. Like why Khat was motivated at all to help the Warders to begin with, once it was obvious his life would be spared. He kept going back, again and again, and it's not like he was in love with Elen. If he had been, it would've made more sense, but he doesn't even really hint at friendship either. Perhaps it's because even he doesn't know his own motivations, but that's a slippery slope when you expect the reader to get it even if your POV character doesn't.

And really, what are the stakes for this story? We don't really get them until closer to the end, and that's far too late for this reader, especially considering the only reason I carried on with the book was because I'd read Wells before and I knew she had something to offer. If I'd never read her before? I would've never made it through the thing.

It's not to say the book doesn't have anything of value: Wells' take on ghosts was quite fascinating. I also did like the world-building in regards to the tiers. Sure, the constant description of them annoyed me, but I really appreciated all of the thought that went into the lifestyle for each tier. There are little moments of humor that are quite enjoyable as well.

My Rating: Problematic, but Promising

If you have not yet Martha Wells' fantasy, I would not suggest starting here. AT ALL. Instead, go pick up The Cloud Roads and prepare to enjoy the hell out of it. City of Bones is a much earlier work, and while I definitely see the glimmers of the author Wells becomes in The Cloud Roads, reading City of Bones was a chore more than anything else. I ended up napping more often than not while reading this, and that's never a good sign. Truth be told, if Wells hadn't already proven her value in The Cloud Roads, City of Bones would've easily been a DNF for me. I didn't connect to the characters, the stakes weren't very clear to me, and was simply very disengaged with the book as a whole. Some of this might be my own fault for falling asleep at a crucial time in the text, but there's something to say about the fact I kept falling asleep during crucial points in the text, you know? That being said, it's not going to stop me from reading The Serpent Seas, which Amazon DID end up discounting to super-cheap prices for the Kindle a few weeks ago! I'm just sorry I impulse-purchased this…it should've really waited until I'd read the Wells book I really wanted.

So yeah. Start with The Cloud Roads. You won't be disappointed. And when you do get enough of her work under your belt and you consider yourself a fan and want to read this, just do yourself a favor and don't get the Kindle copy. I know it's cheaper, but the messed up formatting really makes for a trying read, so go for the hard copy instead. :)

Cover Commentary: I like how simple and elegant it is, but it's still effective. It's great to see that setting, but I do wonder what the entire painting actually looks like. :) I'm also not fond of the fact they felt compelled to use two background colors for the cover: one for the author's name & title, and one for the rest of the book. Maybe they were worried the gold font wouldn't show up well against the lighter, more textured brown? Not sure, but it works, I guess. Could be better, but it's not offensive either.

Next up: Star Wars: Dark Nest III: The Swarm War by Troy Denning


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 12th, 2012 08:44 am (UTC)
Admittedly I havent read this in a LONG time but it was my intro to Wells and I really liked it. I have read it more than once as well.

I have read Cloud Roads but found it a bit too YA in tone and havent read the sequel.

A good compromise might be her Ile-Rien series - its good stuff and Death of A Necromancer is a kindof standalone in the related series that could be a good place to start.
Dec. 12th, 2012 12:51 pm (UTC)
I've heard good things about her Ile-Rein series. I'll probably not start that until I finish the current trilogy, but it'll be on my list. We'll see how that compares!
Dec. 12th, 2012 04:31 pm (UTC)
Just wanted to point out that there's a new cover for the ebook version of CITY OF BONES: (I'm the designer.)
Dec. 12th, 2012 09:35 pm (UTC)
I like it! I wish I'd gotten that cover instead. :)
Dec. 13th, 2012 04:57 am (UTC)
I adore Martha Wells, but I agree that this is not her strongest book.

My favorite is her Ile-Rien trilogy, but the prequels, Death of a Necromancer and The Element of Fire, are also very good.
Dec. 13th, 2012 12:44 pm (UTC)
That trilogy has prequels? What's the best reading order, do you think?
Dec. 15th, 2012 02:34 am (UTC)
I enjoyed "The Cloud Roads," but when I tried reading "Death of a Necromancer," it ended up being a DNF - just couldn't get into it :-( Maybe I'll give it another try one of these years. Would be interesting to see what your opinion of it is, once you get to reading it a few years from now :-)
Dec. 15th, 2012 03:10 am (UTC)
Yeah, that one's definitely low on the list. :)
Jan. 6th, 2013 05:22 pm (UTC)
Cloud Roads was fantastic, and both the books after it were great... in fact, I ended up liking the final book of the trilogy more than the first two, which is rare for me.

We need more books without humans!
Jan. 6th, 2013 06:20 pm (UTC)
Wells has non-humans in this book too. And yes, I agree. It's cool to read from the POVs of non-human characters. :)
Jan. 6th, 2013 06:21 pm (UTC)
I collect books with non-human viewpoints (and prefer the ones with no humans at all, though those are rare). The Raksura books were a huge new find for me, and I'm glad I ran into them. :)
Jan. 6th, 2013 06:23 pm (UTC)
In that case, you should look into Wells' other work. The main POV in this book is a kriss, who is, the best I can describe, a kind of humanoid kangaroo dog man or something. :)
Jan. 6th, 2013 06:24 pm (UTC)
A humanoid kangaroo dog man! I love it. I will have to wait, though, I spent all my monthly budget already on the rest of the Raksura books, and a re-buy of a book that just got released digitally after years out of print, Archangel Protocol by Lyda Morehouse.
Jan. 6th, 2013 06:33 pm (UTC)
Fair enough. Now that you've discovered Wells, though, you can start working through her backlist at your own pace!
Jan. 6th, 2013 06:34 pm (UTC)
Thank goodness for long backlists. Though I ponder the whole "early books" thing all the time. My first books aren't as good as my recent ones, but they have fans. It's a whole different ball of wax when you have the power to terminate the sales of your titles at will. Before I could have said, 'oh well, I can't do anything about it, I have contracts.' Now I am free to stare at the sales figures and think, 'oh geez, but... I could do it so much better now!' :,
Jan. 6th, 2013 06:44 pm (UTC)
There is something to be said for it, but when it comes to pleasing fans, if it makes you money, why not? :)
Jan. 6th, 2013 06:47 pm (UTC)
In the end I choose to honor their enjoyment of it over my artistic uncertainties. I have never liked to tell people that they shouldn't like this piece of art or that piece for my reasons, so I shouldn't start with my own fans. :,
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

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