Warner Holme Review: Martha Wells’ City of Bones

City of Bones by Martha Wells (Originally published in 1995; revised edition from Tordotcom in 2023)

Review by Warner Holme: Martha Wells’ City of Bones is an early entry in the bibliography of a woman who has become a major name in science fiction and fantasy today. Having bounced briefly between publishers, even the introduction’s note that it started out at Tor Books decades ago and ended up at Tordotcom is amusing.

The book handles Fallen World fantasy better than most, giving clear depictions of science that might be magic and Magic that might be science in turn. Certain elements might even fit into the Lovecraft-lite genres, although influence could just as if not more likely be taken from Raiders of the Lost Ark. At the same time, and in spite of certain implications to the contrary, it never flirts with being the particular kind of post-apocalypse one might find in Vampire Hunter D or The Chronicles of Shannara

Much of the volume centers around an individual named Khat. In what will surely feel like it was echoed with the Murderbot Diaries, he is a member of a species or race, the line is left somewhat ambiguous, who works in recovering and selling relics wild part of the lower class of the City of Charisat. Wild pieces of the world are explained in a slow and steady way that seems natural to the narrative, it’s still manages to pretty quickly build up the fact that whether magical or machines there are a variety of relics considered powerful, some of them actually so and others seemingly more symbolically or out of assumption.

A character given almost as much time but, amusingly, no mention in the advertising matter is Elen. She serves as part of a particular group known as Warders, and spends a fair amount of it accompanying Khat in an effort to discover a series of powerful artifacts that seem likely to be used to create something known as an “arcane engine” which has the highest echelons of the city more than a little curious about their potential. Fitting in with a common trope to a certain era of fantasy, Elen is the first woman Warder. She has confidence issues, while also understanding that the reason there aren’t more of them has a lot to do with the fact the people in the selection process are all men and few seem to have a desire to elevate women.

This small detail combines with others in a way that will help readers see an early example of the cultural criticism which Martha Wells has so readily incorporated into her work. Still it feels well built into this setting, and women with power are certainly present in different forms. Questions of class and cultural bias, down to certain disturbing details for the lives of minorities considered “exotic” all play roles in the pages.

The new edition by Tordotcom is a somewhat revised and expanded version and compared to what came before us slightly more polished though never strays from feeling like a relatively early work by a well-known author. The stylistic flares, a particular love for worlds that feel subtly or wholly culturally influenced by real world regions, and the use of not quite human characters to demonstrate human foibles are just the least amongst these.

Fans of Martha Wells should of course pick up this book. It’s a delightful early example of her material, updated and revised in a way that could make it seen as something of the author’s preferred text. While there is a short new author’s note and about the author section, this is not by any means an annotated volume which will reveal vast new secrets to the reader.

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One thought on “Warner Holme Review: Martha Wells’ City of Bones

  1. It’s one of my favorite Wells standalones. It’s such a vivid setting.

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