In City of Lies, Sam Hawke delivers an epic fantasy tale about siblings who must save their city after the Chancellor they swore to protect is mysteriously poisoned. Here, Hawke chats with Jacqueline Carey (Starless) about the origin of her world’s poisons, the divide between written and oral histories, and what she plans on writing next.
(Psst: That’s not all! Click here to read Hawke’s interview with Carey where they discuss Starless, Carey’s latest standalone fantasy about a god set on destroying the earth and the brave duo who hope to stop him.)
Jacqueline Carey: From derivation to effect, the poisons you describe are disturbingly well-considered! What sort of research went into their creation?
Sam Hawke: I didn’t want to use real-world poisons for several reasons. City of Lies is pretty low-magic on the fantasy scale, but I didn’t want it to feel like I’d tried to write a historical fiction but was just too lazy to make it accurate (though don’t get me wrong, I am, definitely, too lazy to put in the work to write historical fiction). I wanted there to be obvious differences between their world and ours, so I made significant portion of the flora and fauna different from what we’d recognize in our world. It followed that the poisons that are available are (mostly) different from ours.
Also, part of the set-up of the story is that my protagonists’ uncle is killed by an unknown poison that they failed to detect or treat and cannot identify. I wanted readers to be in the same position as Jovan and Kalina in terms of how much information they had available, rather than be tempted to assess the symptoms themselves thinking ‘that’s obviously cyanide.’
Having said that, I certainly used a lot of real-world poisons as inspiration, sometimes in names and sometimes in effect or source. Just not in any way that could form the basis for a how-to guide to poisoning in real life!
JC: Is there a real-world analogy in the history of poison-tasters to the concept of proofing?
SH: I am always fascinated by historical jobs that were objectively just absolutely hellish and poison tasting has to be pretty high on the list! They did exist historically but tended to be slaves who were effectively acting as the canary in the coal mine. There’s not much narrative potential in the canary’s story, but I liked the idea of taking that terrible job and making it something more sophisticated, something that was basically a skilled profession suited to people with exceptional capacity to taste. Supertasters are also a real thing, so it didn’t seem like too much of a stretch to imagine a family with a genetic predisposition to supertasting who could cultivate the skills necessary to identify poisons. Of course that role would need to carry all kinds of baggage to make it something that people would be willing to train for, which meant either something extravagantly paid, or otherwise rewarded… I basically built the plot of the book around that job and the kind of society that might have a place for it. I’m not aware of any point in history in which this actually happened, but there were certainly enough paranoid rulers around that maybe it did and they were just very effective!
JC: Your usage of unfamiliar verbiage—for example, the “Credol” families as ranking aristocracy, and their accompanying honorifics—strikes me as very select and judicious. Were those deliberate or intuitive decisions? Is there a linguistic base for the words you created?
SH: The decisions were very deliberate. Those titles are a verbal signal which identifies the origin of certain aspects of the modern culture and society. The government is a kind of uneasy combination of standard governmental positions and hereditary title-holders; the ruling Council is half comprised of heads of Guild and the other half are heads of the landholder Credol families. The honorifics associated with the landholding families are linguistically linked to one of the cultures that was assimilated into the country centuries earlier through a substantial influx of refugees and whose written language persists. Readers who are interested in deep worldbuilding stuff can piece this together over the course of the book but for most people it’ll just be a case of ‘OK, this is what the nobility are called here,’ and roll with it.
For simulating consistent languages I highly recommend this fun little language generator called Vulgar, which is a brilliant tool—it’ll generate grammatical rules and a dictionary of common words for you.
JC: The family structure in City of Lies is quite unusual. By and large, the concept of fatherhood appeared absent—although I wouldn’t call it a matriarchal society, since uncles, or “Tashis,” are such a significant presence. Can you elaborate on the ways in which you envision this structure functioning?
SH: I think it’s right to say it’s not matriarchal—matrilineal, yes. One of the things I like about writing secondary-world fantasy, particularly one which is light on supernatural elements, is that you’ve got the freedom to mess with some of the default cultural norms from Western society. SFF settings are often based around a ‘what if…?’ concept and in my case, because my two protagonists were brother and sister, I wanted to explore what a society would look like if that kind of relationship was given primacy. I also didn’t want to replicate the gender issues that have historically flowed from the patriarchy in our own world.
Silastian society places enormous importance on family—which is to say, blood relatives—with an individual’s reputation, position, successes, and failures intrinsically bound to their family’s. With this emphasis on blood relatives, women are regarded as the sole reliable and accurate determinants for lineage (which makes sense as a practical matter in a society without genetic testing available).
The society places correspondingly less formal value on couple/romantic relationships, and has no concept of marriage. Households are made up of extended family groups from multiple generations, all of whom are involved in raising children, but women will nominate a close male relative, often their brother or male cousin, to be the child’s Tashi, which is a kind of joint guardian and role model for the child.
All sorts of cultural things flow from this structure, including that daughters and sons are equally important to the family group, and their value is in enhancing its reputation and fortunes.
JC: At one point, I noticed an interesting conflict between the written and oral traditions of history. What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of both traditions?
SH: Written history has certain obvious advantages over oral in that it can be recorded permanently at a point in time that can then be referred to without change. But written language can strip out meaning and context as well, and it’s also susceptible to manipulation in that its objective truth can be overemphasized (history is written by the victors, etc) and because language is a fluid thing, errors can be made in assuming a modern meaning in older language. In the City of Lies world, there’s the added complication that the written and oral languages aren’t aligned, because refugees hundreds of years in the past brought a written language but adopted the oral one of their new home. That adds an extra layer of how information is conveyed over time, and there are all kinds of significant power dynamics associated with who can communicate in writing and who can’t, and what that means for them.
JC: This is a book about strife and betrayal on many levels—religious warfare, class warfare, personal ambition. Without giving too much away, is there one element you consider the prime mover?
SH: They’re kind of impossible to separate. Certainly I didn’t think of them as separate elements. Being conscious of spoilers, I think it’s really a book about consequences—decisions made in the distant past have had this rippling effect which amplifies over time, opening up cracks that can then be exploited. They’re not unrelated—the way that dominant cultures interact with non-dominant cultures/religions, the way lifestyle divergences between country/city residents can foster resentment and bias, and of course the way wealth distribution affects the opportunities available to different classes. It’s all connected.
JC: Your protagonists, brother and sister Jovan and Kalina, provide an interesting contrast. He has a form of OCD, which is actually understood with a considerable degree of compassion by those closest to him; she has a respiratory disability which causes people to underestimate her. Was there anything specific that inspired those creative choices? And what would you like readers to take away from the experience of being immersed in these characters’ lives?
SH: When I read the first line of Starless I laughed aloud at the amazing similarity between our opening lines, and then I was surprised again to find that we both wrote protagonists with disabilities, too! It’s not something you see in epic fantasy all that often, though I wish it were more common. People with disabilities deserve to be the hero, to have adventures, and to save the day, too, not just be relegated to side characters or inspirations or villains.
The health issues that my protagonists have—mental illness in Jovan’s case and an immune disease in Kalina’s (keeping her in poor health and making her unsuitable as a proofer)—came with them, somewhere out of my subconscious, from the moment I first imagined the characters. It’s likely that happened for a range of reasons: to reflect the real world in my fictional society, to tell a story about people who didn’t feel like classic fantasy archetypes, and particularly people who weren’t effortlessly healthy the way characters often are, and to add depth and complexity to the relationship between the siblings which was the core of the story.
I’d like readers to experience these health issues the way they really are: something which is unfair and inconvenient and can interfere with every aspect of a person’s life, which they handle because they have to. But which doesn’t define who they are and isn’t the focus of the story.
JC: City of Lies resolves in a satisfying manner, but there’s certainly room to build on this story and in this world. Is this the first in a series? How many more volumes might we expect?
SH: I am contracted to write two, and I am frantically trying to finish the second one as we speak. Like City of Lies, it will function as a complete story arc which is connected to, but capable of functioning independently of, the first book. Whether we might expect any more after that largely depends whether City of Lies does well enough to justify continuing in the same world!
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat to me. I really loved Starless and think your work epitomizes the #FearlessWomen spirit! It’s been a privilege to chat with you.
Jacqueline Carey is the author of the New York Times bestselling Kushiel’s Legacy series of historical fantasy novels, The Sundering epic fantasy duology, postmodern fables Santa Olivia and Saints Astray, and the Agent of Hel contemporary fantasy series. Carey lives in western Michigan. You can visit her online at www.jacquelinecarey.com and on Twitter as @JCareyAuthor.