Not the book everyone thinks of when they hear "City of Bones," unfortunately. I have no idea what that one is about, but this one is actually about bones. Cities and wastelands littered with bones and sand and an ancient mystery tied to bones (among other things) and a lot of mysticism revolving around the usage of bones, hence the relevant title.
I think most readers would give this book a 3- to 4-star rating, but for me it's nearly 5 stars. I rarely reread a book right away after finishing it the first time around--this book made me to that. I rarely wish books were longer--this book made me do that too. After finishing this book a second time, I wished it was part of a series. There's still so much left that can span a continuous series. The easy pacing, engaging characterization, interesting plotting, and overall atmosphere of the story made it an very enjoyable read.
Without further ado, this is a post-apocalyptic semi-steampunk desert fantasy, which means it's mostly fantasy with some interesting sci-fi parts.
As depicted on the front cover, this story takes place in a barren setting overrun by deserts and wastelands. The few cities left alive following a long-ago apocalypse are struggling to survive under a lot of strain--socially, economically, religiously, spiritually, morally, etc. It's not clear when or how the apocalypse came about due to all records being destroyed, but it was probably some centuries ago.
The main story takes place in Charisat, the largest and wealthiest surviving city surrounded by the Waste, former oceans that have been turned into vast fiery desert pits. What's special about Charisat is that it's a multi-level (Tier) city and its citizens' socio-economic statuses are tied to where they live on these Tiers, with the highest Tiers set aside for royalty, politicians, and religious figures; the middle Tiers are for merchants; and the lowest Tiers are for the poor, non-citizens, and other outcasts. More about Charisat below*.
Half of the adventure/mystery in this story is focused on digging into the past, discovering pieces of relics--ancient artifacts--and figuring out their actual functions. The belief is that all of these relics are small pieces of a huge system of some kind that the Ancients--people living before the apocalypse--made and used somehow. The only people believed to know how to use these machines were the Survivors--those who survived the apocalypse--but for some reason, these people did not pass on the knowledge to their descendants. They only left cryptic textbooks, strange notes, and weird drawings behind, as crazy ancestors tend to do. Hunting down these relics and bartering for them, or in some cases stealing them outright, is the other half of the adventure/mystery. And what's an adventure without political and religious intrigue and a crazy cult chasing after the relic hunters? Of course time is as limited as water once everyone realizes that by piecing the relics together they begin to unravel the mystery of the apocalypse.
The relic hunters are: Khat, a not quite human non-citizen hiding in Charisat from a mysterious past; Sagai, also a non-citizen, relic scholar, and Khat's partner in crime; and Elen, a young determined scholar mage ("Warder") from the upper Tiers on a secret mission. Due to their extensive knowledge of history and valuable relics, Khat and Sagai are hired on (read: forced) to help Elen in her search. They don't have much choice in the matter since they're lower-Tiered immigrants who don't want to offend the authorities or get kicked out of the city by refusing to help. Don't worry, there's no love triangle here, but things do become more tense as these three come closer to unraveling the mystery.
The setting is both fantastical and realistic. It's a feat of imagination, but at the same time, the depictions borrow from familiar cultures and customs of the Middle East, such as veils and preservation of identity as a social status. The terrains and climates are distinctly that of a desert world, and details pertinent to both city and society (of Charisat) are casually slipped into narration and conversations to reinforce the feeling of being in an unfamiliar place that feels vaguely familiar. Dry heat, searing sand, scorching sun, burning paved roads, gleaming rooftops, billowing dust clouds--all minor details that add to the overall atmosphere of the story.
What I really like about this story is that within the confines of the story Martha Wells is able to make a series of quick socially relevant commentary without weighing the story down or taking time away from the plot to get her point across. Some of the topics she brings up are immigration, citizenship, race, poverty, and these social problems are connected. Wells doesn't burden the reader with confrontations of abject oppression. Instead, she shows it by casually slipping it into plot and characterization, like in Khat's situation. He knows enough to stay away from the authorities, but when he's hired to help them, he can't refuse or he'd risk his life and safety. By helping them, he's also risking his life and safety, but he's guaranteed commission in return. That's just one of the burden of being a non-citizen.
While Sagai may be a foreigner, he's a human foreigner and therefore subjected to less discrimination than Khat, who is also a foreigner but not of human origins, but Khat still manages to live with these "short comings" by conducting his business according to his social parameters. His adaptation to life in Charisat is only a glimpse of the lower-Tiered experience, and his survival and hard-earned place on the Sixth Tier in the city are a testament to all the things he's had to overcome to hang on to the Sixth Tier.
* More on the social order of Charisat:
Citizens must fight to stay on their Tiers or risk being push down a Tier--and another Tier and so on. Those on the Seventh and Eight Tiers fear losing their places the most because, if or once they fall, they would be cast out of the city and forced to fend for themselves out in the Waste, where pirates and strange carnivorous creatures roam. As for non-citizens, they are relegated to the lower Tiers and only permitted to work, but not live, on upper Tiers.
There's a great shortage of water and vegetation, and like all societies dependent on limited (precious) resources, water is sacred, but can also be used as commodity. Citizens' socio-economic statuses also tie to their access to clean water, once again with the people on the higher Tiers receiving the cleanest water and the people on the lower Tiers having limited access to poor quality water.
The story starts out on the Fifth Tier, where everyday life is all right, not great but not terribly lacking either. Citizens on this Tier are stable and satisfied with their lots. Then the story moves to the Sixth Tier where Khat and Sagai live, and differences between the two Tiers are noticeable. The Sixth Tier is cramped, dusty, loud, stuffy, and hot, all signs of a slum, but as the story moves to the lower Tiers, we see that the Sixth Tier isn't so bad because the Seventh and Eighth Tiers are actual slums in comparison. Everything smells of the sewers, living quarters are terrible, the water quality is even worse, and citizens and non-citizens face violence on an hourly basis. It is actually survival of the fittest--smartest, fastest, strongest, most ruthless, etc.
In contrast, Khat gets the chance visit the upper Tiers during daytime, he's astonished at how clear the atmosphere is, how clean the streets are, how there's no stench wafting in the air and no trash clogging the gutters, and most importantly, how crystal clear the water is. The people on the upper Tiers have access to so much clean water, they don't know what to do with it, so they build fountains in front of every building and clear, odorless water runs free. And there are no authorities around to guard it or charge for the use of it and no gangs or mobs fighting over control of it. Precious clean water is used as decorations and frivolous interior designs, and these upper Tier people don't even give it much thought.
The economics of the relic trade market, as well as the illegal Silent (black) Market, in Charisat, which both Sagai and Khat are frequent visitors, is an interesting series of commentary on immigrant restrictions. Along that line, Khat's family and homeland, the Enclave out in the Waste, are another interesting series of commentary. (Will have to return to these two things for a third reading.)
Some quotable moments:
The Warder watched Khat's fumbling attempts to wind the veil, then said grudgingly, "Let me do that."
Khat hesitated. There were only a few people that he didn't mind coming that close to him, and all of them lived in Netta's house down on the Sixth Tier.
Power in play
In a way she did own Khat and everyone else in Charisat, or she would when she was Elector, since having absolute power over something was equal to ownership. But usually there were buffers between someone in Khat's lowly position and that ownership; powerful Patricians, Trade Inspectors, even Warders, all had to be gotten over or around or through before to word of command actually got down to noncitizen krismen relic dealers on the Sixth Tier. Hearing it so plainly now, so personally, was like feeling the tug of a leash.
The privilege of power
Even Sagai at his most persuasive was only allowed to take out one volume at a time; he called trips to the booksellers tests of humility, and said it was the only place in the city where one paid for the privilege of being reminded that one was a foreigner and a resident of a lower tier, instead of getting it for free from strangers on the street.
Duty and snark
"Just tell him what I said; he'll known you're speaking the truth. Please," [Elen] added more softly. "I can't do this with a clear conscience unless I know you'll tell the Master Warder what happened."
"Why is a clear conscience necessary?" Sagai asked, not helpfully. "All it takes is a confused sense of duty and a disregard for personal survival."
Water for execution
The water was unexpectedly cold, as if it came straight from Charisat's artesian spring and was never warmed by passing through miles of pipes and cisterns. Some Patricians would pay any amount of minted gold for water this cool, and the Heir was wasting it by drowning people in it.
Khat wondered what could possibly be going through his mind: after spending a thousand years in self-imposed exile, to suddenly be released into a world that must bear little resemblance to the one he had left behind. Khat cleared his throat and said, "Well, was it worth saving?"
Sevan turned, his face shadowed by the sun's glare and said, "It has its own beauty, in a strange fashion. Perhaps it was worth it."
Lastly, I always wanted to use this meme, but never had the chance until now.