Martha Wells, City of Bones (Tor, 1995)

In a genre overrun by pseudo-Arthurian quests and fourth-generation Tolkein clones, original approaches to fantasy are seemingly few and far between. That sad fact is a blessing to new, fresh voices, however, as their work stands out all the more from the morass of homogenous mediocrity.

Martha Wells garnered a well-deserved bit of notice with her debut novel, The Element of Fire, which effectively recreated the royal intrigue of 17th century France in a magical, mystical setting. Determined to avoid any sophomore slump, Wells eschews the industry-favored safety net of a sequel and instead stakes out new territory.

New territory, indeed. With City of Bones, Wells invents a whole new world rooted in everything from The Arabian Nights to the post-apocalyptic themes of speculative fiction. Charisat is the greatest city of the devastated Great Waste, towering over the holocaust-ravaged world. All trade routes eventually lead here, a great mix of cultures and creeds that is as much Babylon as Casablanca. Naturally, it's a magnet of people too, attracting all manner of schemer, thief, businessman and trader. And Khat.

Khat is a waste-dweller, one of a marginalized people genetically -- or magically, the point is unclear -- engineered to survive the hostile deserts and the mutated, monstrous dangers that live there. Khat learned long ago that survival is the first order of business, and if you manage to improve your lot just a little in the process, well, you're coming out ahead. Unfortunately, others want much more than that and are determined to draw him into a plot to venture out into the Great Waste, to revisit the ruins of the lost civilization that once destroyed the world, and unlock the mysteries of those powers.

Due to the unmistakable apocalyptic elements here, there's a tendency here to place Charisat on some ruined, future-Earth. To do so, though, is to sell Wells short. Here she's created not only a world that stands apart from most other secondary-world fantasy on the market today, but she's given it a history that stretches back not years, but centuries -- perhaps millennia. The tiered city is populated by mages, warders, ghostcallers -- all manner of exotic and magical people. Wells throws in a wealth of little details that flesh Charisat out, giving it a unique existence all its own. Magic is real here, much more so than it could ever be on a ruined Earth of the future. There's an amazing flavor here, spicy, dry and not at all familiar. Take a taste, and I'm sure you'll agree.

[ by Jayme Lynn Blaschke ]

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