There is a category of people out there who love stories set in exotic cities in the desert. The continued popularity of Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia or even John Wayne and Sophia Loren’s Legend of the Lost is a testament to the endurance of the genre. I am generally not the target audience of such stories. Having grown up in the mountains in the West, I’ll take the cold over hot any day of the week. Which suggests that when I recommend Martha Wells’ book City of Bones, it means that the story has been interesting and readable enough to overcome my pro-tundra prejudices.
Charisat is one of the few cities left in a world that was ravaged in the distant past by some horrendous cataclysm that has sense moved into legend. Bits and bobs of technology and magic are occasionally discovered in the desert waste left between the cities and put to work, either by the prestigious Academy operating under the authority of the higher classes of the city, or by the relic dealers and scavengers of the lower orders. Khat is such a relic dealer, and, along with his partner and the naive upper-class Warder (i.e. magician) trainee Elen, is about to make the discovery of the era. Three ancient artifacts when brought together will either unlock the mysterious powers of the ancient wizards, or will unleash a horde of demonic powers on the world that will complete the work of destruction begun by the cataclysm of the past.And I can’t say much more than that without serious spoilers. Let’s just leave it at “you should read this book–it’s excellent!”
What’s perhaps especially interesting is that in a book set in a highly stratified society in the distant future, there is very nearly no religion present at all. The social conventions of this book are such that many authors would have taken the opportunity to comment on the oppressiveness of religious belief, especially when set in contrast with science. And yet, Wells doesn’t go that direction. In fact, if anything it’s the professional scientists who are close minded and the desert peoples (at least so much as they turn up in the story) who are flexible and thoughtful when it comes to interacting with new ideas and new worldviews.
Which may mean that the modern world is in a pretty sad state of affairs when I’m content with the mere “non-engagement” with religion by a sci-fi/fantasy/horror novel. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and we can at least enjoy a good, solid novel.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO