City of Strife is set in the bustling city of Isandor and stars a huge cast of characters, each with intersecting storylines, histories, and paths. A few examples:
- Arathiel, a human whose ill-fated journey to find a cure for his sick sister transformed him, dulling all his senses and giving him a much longer lifespan. It’s been over 130 years since he last set foot in Isandor, and he now feels like an unwelcome stranger there. The one place he feels comfortable: the Shelter, which provides food and a place to sleep to anyone who needs it. It’s there that he becomes friends with Larryn, the Shelter’s owner, Cal, a halfling, and Hasryan, a dark elf.
- Nevian, an apprentice mage in the Myrian enclave. He lives in constant fear of Master Avenazar, who killed his previous tutor and now regularly abuses him. Nevian’s only ally is Varden, a High Priest of Keroth and former Myrian slave. Unfortunately, Varden, too, must tread carefully around Avenazar.
- Lord Diel Dathirii, an elf and head of the Dathirii family. When he witnesses Avenazar publicly torturing Nevian, he decides that it’s time to finally take a stand against the Myrians, who have thus far been permitted to live by their own laws while in their enclave in Isandor. The rest of his family will stand by his decisions and support him, but that may not be enough if Isandor’s other noble families decide to abandon House Dathirii to face the Myrians alone.
City of Strife is one of the very few (perhaps only?) ARCs I’ve ever requested from an author. I was interested in the book’s LGBTQIA+ cast and “found family” aspect, and the author had a nice online form that, if I remember correctly, only asked for interested reviewers’ email addresses (easy! low stress! didn’t require NetGalley or a Twitter DM!). The long book description concerned me a little and made it difficult to tell what the book would be like, but I figured I’d give it a shot.
I’m glad I did, because I enjoyed it immensely, although I’m now unhappy that I’ll have to wait who knows how long for Book 2 to come out. A word of warning: City of Strife ends with lots of things still unresolved and several characters in peril. Crossing my fingers that none of the characters I care about get killed off in the next two books.
One thing that dismayed me when I first started reading: the many, many POVs. The book was written in third person, but chapters/sections focused on different characters’ perspectives. Almost every named character had a chapter or section written from their POV, and it wasn’t until I’d gotten 15% into the book that a POV repeated itself.
The POVs turned out to be both the book’s strength and its weakness. I loved gradually learning how the various characters’ stories were interrelated - what the stuff at the Shelter had to do with House Dathirii, who Nevian was secretly visiting for magic lessons, what would prompt Arathiel to reveal his noble blood to his friends at the Shelter and/or Isandor’s noble families, etc. However, all those POVs and complex and interrelated storylines meant that some of my favorite characters and storylines didn’t get as much page-time as I’d have liked. For example, Arathiel and, eventually, Hasryan ended up being my favorite characters, and I particularly looked forward to seeing Arathiel find a place for himself at the Shelter with Larryn, Cal, and Hasryan. Unfortunately, there wasn’t nearly as much on-page friendship-building as I expected, and one character’s actions near the end of the book destroyed my impression of the trio as an overall warm and welcoming group.
I much preferred House Dathirii, which, aside from a couple exceptions I’m hoping that one of the next couple books will cover in more detail, was largely just as warm and welcoming as it initially appeared to be. I particularly loved Camilla. Everyone could use someone like Camilla in their lives.
House Dathirii brings me to another aspect of the book I both loved and had problems with: the politics. I love fantasy and sci-fi books with lots of politics, and this one had House Dathirii clashing with the Myrian enclave and struggling to get support, a 10-year-old murder that was relevant to current politics, and more. Fascinating stuff. Unfortunately, I prefer when there’s at least one character who’s incredibly skilled at navigating politics, and this book didn’t have that, at least not front-and-center. Avenazar was so lacking in self-control that I was amazed he’d never done anything in Myria to earn himself an execution. Maybe he had really good family connections protecting him? And then there was Diel: principled, idealistic, and almost completely lacking in the ability to sit back, pick his battles, and maybe go at things a little more subtly and indirectly. At least he recognized that it was other members of his family who did the heavy lifting when it came to making sure the family survived whatever fight he’d chosen to involve them all in.
All in all, despite my complaints this was a riveting read, and I wish the next couple books were out already. In the meantime, I plan on getting myself a copy of Arseneault’s Viral Airwaves.
(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)