Immensely Satisfying: City of Bones by Martha Wells

Posted 1st March 2024 by Sia in Crescent Classics, Fantasy Reviews, Reviews / 2 Comments

City of Bones by Martha Wells
Genres: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
PoV: Third-person, past tense; dual PoVs

Before Martha Wells captured the hearts of MILLIONS with her Murderbot series, there was Khat, Sagai, and Elen, and a city risen out of death and decay…

The city of Charisat, a tiered monolith of the Ancients’ design, sits on the edge of the vast desert known as the Waste. Khat, a member of a humanoid race created by the Ancients to survive in the Waste, and Sagai, his human partner, are relic dealers working in the bottom tiers of society, trying to stay one step ahead of the Trade Inspectors.

When Khat is hired by the all-powerful Warders to find relics believed to be part of one of the Ancients' arcane engines, he, and his party, begin unravelling the mysteries of an age-old technology.

This they expected.

They soon find themselves as the last line of defense between the suffering masses of Charisat and a fanatical cult, bent on unleashing an evil upon the city with an undying thirst for bone.

That, they did not expect.

This updated and revised edition is the author’s preferred text.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.


~pouches > childbirth
~water as currency
~magical and political factions
~a world built out of the bones of a more ancient one
~nothing is quite what it seems

I discovered Martha Wells through her Raksura series – years before Murderbot – and did my best to go through her backlist at the time, but City of Bones, for whatever reason, was a book I initially bounced off of. Cue the expanded and updated edition, and I decided it was time to give it another go.

And I’m SO glad that I did! Everything Wells rocks at is here in spades; superficially simple but excellent worldbuilding, incredibly compelling characters, and twisty, thoughtful plots that conclude in ways I never see coming. City of Bones is a book you can sink into like a warm bath, but it’s also exciting; not non-stop action, but high-tension and mystery and full of secrets, double-bluffs, and flip-the-table reveals. And I simply ADORED the ending – the final pages went against everything a lifetime as a bookworm had led me to expect, and that simply delights me!

So what have we got? A post-apocalyptic setting, of a kind; many centuries ago, something happened that caused the fall of the Ancients, and transformed most of the landmass into a kind of desert (think Death Valley crossed with the Grand Canyon, not sand dunes). But there were survivors, and in the present day there are a handful of cities around that central desert; within it live the krismen, last-minute creations of the Ancients – a kind of human designed to survive the apocalypse the Ancients thought would destroy everything. Krismen are tougher than humans, need less water, have babies in pouches rather than typical mammalian childbirth (I’m pretty jealous of that one) and their eyes change colours somewhat according to mood.

Humans consider krismen animals, good only for killing (krismen bones allegedly make the best divination tools), so most of them stay well clear of the cities. Which makes our main character Khat an extreme oddity, because when we meet him, he’s hanging out in the wedding-cake-shaped city of Charisat, with his (human) friend and business partner Sagai. We don’t realise how odd this set-up is in the opening pages, but Wells gradually feeds us enough cultural context for us to grasp that Khat living among humans is pretty much unheard-of, making us (or at least me!) rabidly curious about his backstory.

(Which we do eventually get, fear not!)

Khat is an awesome character; smart, saavy, able to tuck his pride away when it would only make things worse (admittedly one of my favourite character traits), and ruthlessly vicious when necessary. And he genuinely loves the relics he and Sagai make a living from, which is something I adore – yes, please, give your characters passions and hobbies and interests! That immediately makes them so much more interesting and real. Playing off against him is Elen, a Warder (magic-user) from the highest of the upper classes, and whose naïveté would probably be annoying in the hands of a less skilled author. Instead, we get to follow along as she grows into her natural intelligence and competence, a character arc that makes it clear that she is not as…small a person as her society has taught her she is. It’s subtly and excellently done, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Story-wise, Elen hires Khat to lead her out into the Waste so she can experiment with an Ancient relic. Things begin to go wrong almost immediately, though not precisely because of the relic; it appears there are factions amongst the Warders, and at least one of them really Do Not Want Elen – or rather, her master, Riathen – to possess this relic.

(Also, cannibal pirates.)

Khat is wary of being drawn into the in-fighting of these people who live on the top tier of Charisat, since any one of them could have him killed with a snap of their fingers (with or without magic). But when it becomes clear that Elen’s relic is actually one of a triad of relics meant to work together for some arcane purpose, he can’t resist the part of him that loves to study and understand the things the Ancients left behind – and he has important plans for the money he’s offered to help find the missing two of the triad.

I am consistently blown away by how much story Wells manages to pack into her standalones, and City of Bones is no exception. We have a sort of political treasure-hunt that takes us from the Waste to the highest (and lowest) tiers of Charisat; Khat’s criminal history and its repercussions; the divide among the Warders, and what the hell is fuelling it; the politics of Charisat’s succession, with Riathen backing the apparent ‘crown princess’ who definitely has her own agenda; Khat’s complicated relationship with the krismen clan who badly want him to come home; and, of course, the enormous mystery of what exactly the three relics everyone is looking for actually do. As the blurb hints, ‘what they do’ is pretty major indeed…

Nothing feels rushed or under-developed, and the pacing is perfect; there’s never a dull moment, but we still have time to learn about these characters and their inner lives, and the webs of relationships that connect them to others all over (and outside of) the city. Belonging and power, in all their various facets, are major themes, and Wells plays our heart-strings like a fiddle, whirling us from tension to aching empathy to breathlessness with the skill of a master. I was never bored, and I never didn’t care, not even about the smallest details of the most minor plotlines – everything was interesting, and everything mattered, if not always directly to the plot then to my understanding of this world and the people in it. I would not like to visit Charisat, but it absolutely felt like a place I could visit, should I so choose; a real place, populated by very real people, and therefore worthy of saving…no matter its flaws.

(I mean, the flaws just make it more real, don’t they?)

City of Bones is not Murderbot, but it’s the perfect book for anyone looking for a rich, multi-layered character-driven fantasy that bucks reader expectations at most every turn. It’s a surprising, unusual, massively satisfying epic, and just serves as more proof that Wells deserved to be a household name long before Murderbot came along!

So, SO strongly recommended!

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2 responses to “Immensely Satisfying: City of Bones by Martha Wells

  1. Your review is just the second one who highly praised and strongly recommended we read this book. Granted, my TBR is as high as a skyscraper; yet, I’m curious as to why fewer fantasy readers enjoyed this book over disliking it.

    • Sia

      Most people haven’t enjoyed it??? That really surprises me! I haven’t seen any negative reviews, but then, I haven’t been looking. Now I want to go find some and figure out what other people are disliking, because as is obvious, I loved it!

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