The Wells of Sorcery is the trilogy everybody should be talking about. But the trouble with things published in January is that they’re good for buying with Christmas gift cards, but bad for making it on to best-of lists. Which is a shame, since Ship of Smoke and Steel, the first installment, was a rollicking good time. And now City of Stone and Silence, the second volume, is every bit as thrilling, smart, and badass as the first.
Isoka has made it through the journey aboard the Soliton, but now there comes the destination: an island as much hell as paradise, with days of sunshine and fertile fields, but nights filled with undead terrors and bitter feuds. Negotiating the rival clans and power-mad ruler is made all the more difficult by Isoka’s time limits. If she doesn’t get back to Kahnzoka within one year, her sister’s life is forfeit. She, her beloved Meroe, and her crew burn through plans and battles like mad in order to meet what feels like an impossible deadline.
But Tori, Isoka’s younger sister, might already be in trouble with the empire. Isoka thinks Tori is safe inside a upper-class estate, with tutors and maids and guards keeping her properly cosseted. But Tori is haunted by her past on the street and the sudden wealth she didn’t earn. Many nights she makes her way from her soft, protected life in the upper city and goes to work at a hospital in the lower city. She launders bedding, binds wounds, and soothes pains. And she also assists in an underground network that keeps magebloods away from the imperial draft. Magebloods like her. Because Tori is an adept just like Isoka, only her power is not in combat, but over people’s minds.
Both stories move at a very good clip, especially considering the narrative is now split between Tori and Isoka. I loved Isoka’s voice and daring from the first book, and thought I might resent Tori from taking time away from her. Tori, though, is her own kind of awesome. Though she’s shyer and more polite than her sister, she’s not quite the fragile bloom that Isoka thinks she is (and wants her to be, since Isoka needs one innocent thing to keep her motivated in her corrupt world). Tori is intimately familiar with the emotional burden of responsibility that Isoka is only just learning. But Isoka is far more comfortable with her powers and the compromises leaderships requires than Tori. There’s a nice balance there, and nothing so crude as having them be “the sweet sister” and “the practical sister.” They’re each complex enough to change over the course of the book, and distinct enough for those changes to seem consistently interesting and fresh. Also, they both fight mega-dramatic battles in very different and interesting ways. Let’s not forget that part.
This book and this series is just so much fun. The action never stops, the characterization is clear and sharp, and the action is a joy to behold. I mean, at one point, people fight undead dinosaurs with what are essentially lightsabers. There’s just no getting around how crazy-cool that is.
This isn’t to ignore the serious themes; actually, the overarching idea that individuals can still make a difference added to my enjoyment. Wexler has a lot to say about freedom in times of tyranny, about the ways to use privilege (or not to use it), and about the toll of leadership. This book sometimes felt like zucchini bread: delicious enough to devour, and sneakily healthy besides.
City of Stone and Silence will be released January 7.