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Literature / City of Bones (1995)

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A standalone 1995 Low Fantasy Post Apocalyptic novel by Martha Wells.

Khat is a member of the krismen, a humanoid marsupial race genetically engineered to survive the harsh desert wastes left after a supernatural apocalypse. He spends his life in the rigidly hierarchical city of Charisat dealing archaeological relics and keeping his head down; he just wants to help support his human trading partner, Sagai, and Sagai's family, preferably without getting jumped in an alley by someone who wants valuable krismen bones to sell to a fortune teller.

When Khat is approached by Warders, elite mages in service of Charisat's government, to find a set of relic believed to hold particular power, he's reluctant to get involved. But he soon discovers he's being stalked by more than just low-tier thugs, and there's more than upper-tier politics or the Warders' dangerously unstable magic at play. No one really knows what they're getting pulled into: not Khat; not, Elen, the young Warder he finds himself reluctant allied with; not their employers; not even their enemies. But there's no question that as a tremendous ancient power is at stake, so is the world as they know it, and everyone in it.

The worldbuilding is heavily Middle-Eastern-flavored, and also has shades of Steampunk or soft Science Fiction: with the use of guns and combustion engines, and with the Ancients' magic often referred to in terms such as "arcane engines" that give it more of a Lost Technology than Wild Magic feel.

This novel includes examples of the following tropes:

  • Abusive Parents: Khat's settlement was slaughtered by cannibals, he being the only survivor. His uncle's reaction? To blame him for the massacre. No wonder he left for the human cities.
  • After the End: The Ancients brought about some catastrophe that reduced most of the known world to a desert wasteland that's populated with isolated human city-states, krisman enclaves, and cannibalistic bandit bands. There is a thriving trade in Ancient cultural artifacts and in the few surviving scraps of Magitek. Ultimately, the characters have to fend off the same threat that the Ancients did.
  • Alone with the Psycho: Toyed with. More than once, Khat winds up trapped with Constans, supposedly mad and definitely a murderer. However, Constans turns out to be a different kind of mad than supposed, and is more interested in manipulating Khat into helping him than in killing him.
  • Ancient Artifact: The Warders' pain rods are the only known relics which grant the bearer power rather than being academic or aesthetic in value.
  • The Beautiful Elite: Patricians are expensively dressed, and noted to be generally tall, fair, and have classically attractive bone structure (in contrast to the denizens of the lower tiers, who tend to be shorter, stockier, darker, and grittier. Somewhat justified in that its very difficult (in many cases, illegal) to buy one's way into the upper class, so patricians not only hold all the wealth, but are largely descended from a small pool of common ancestors who specifically selected for those features.
  • The Beforetimes: The apocalypse was so thorough that the ancient relics and remnants they have aren't even from the Ancient era—they're from the "Survivors", the remnant of humanity immediately following the rising of the Waste. Scholars do have some ideas about pre-Waste history, but it's largely guesswork.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Khat and Elen, a persecuted non-citizen and a noblewoman respectively, develop this as they're stuck associating with and looking after each other. It's not helped by Khat purposely trolling Elen's friends who think they're having an affair. Ultimately, Khat turns down Elen's offer of courtship, albeit fondly.
  • Black Market: Charisat's "silent market" is a loose network of people who deal in information, favours, and illegally traded artifacts. Like many traders, Khat values his connections here dearly even though he tries to do business above board as much as possible.
  • Boyish Short Hair: Elen. Though she is an Action Girl, this is more of an inverted Long Hair Is Feminine than personal expression. All patrician women keep their hair close-cropped as a matter of fashion.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Khat. He can't really afford not to fight dirty: sneaking up on opponents, pulling a knife when they've lost their weapon, and distracting them however possible. When he's not fighting in self-defense (which is most of the time), he does at least pick opponents who really had it coming.
  • Confess in Confidence: When Khat balks at helping Elen's investigation because it would require him to reveal his Black Market connections to a Warder, she Invokes this by getting him to make her his apprentice. As such, she's required to protect his business interests — legal or not.
  • Consummate Liar: Khat, who stocks this skill as a necessity in his career as a Black Market art trader who has no civil rights in Charisat's Fantastic Caste System. He's helped in this by an innate Psychic Block Defense, but his own talents are enough that he helps Elen get over being a Bad Liar.
  • Create Your Own Villain: The city-states throw anyone they don't like out into the Waste, where they either become pirates or food for the existing pirates. No one in the cities seems to realize that their caravans would probably be safer if they weren't constantly giving reinforcements to people with every reason to hate them.
  • Cunning Linguist: It's not uncommon for traders and scholars to speak more than one language, but Khat has an especially diverse portfolio—including both the Ancient script read by only a few scholars and Manean, the native kris tongue closest to that of the Ancients—and his translation skills are called upon at multiple points.
  • Desert Bandits: Pirates commonly attack and sometimes eat travelers on the Waste roads between the fringe cities.
  • Distressed Dude: Khat can usually handle himself pretty well, but he does spend a decent amount of time getting arrested/abducted and subsequently saved by a nice spectrum of the supporting cast.
  • Don't Tell Mama: Khat works pretty hard to keep Sagai and Miram from learning that he used to work for Lushan.
  • Enemy Mine: When faced with cooperating with either Riathan, who has been a sort-of-ally but is definitely going to do something terrible, or Constans, who has been antagonizing them up to this point but is only potentially going to do something less terrible, Khat makes peace with the latter. So does Elen, even more reluctantly, once the Inhabitants are unleashed and it's clear just how bad they are.
  • Evil Wears Black: Charisat's condemned criminals, including Warder-turned-murderer Constans and his servants, are made to wear black. Subverted when the white-clad Warders turn out to be on the evil (or at least misinformed) side of the conspiracy, and Constans turns out to be trying to save everyone.
  • Exotic Extended Marriage: Krismen mate in trios. Khat cites this tradition to Elen as one of the reasons he fled his home enclave to live among humans, saying he wasn't interested in being someone's second husband.
  • Eye Color Change: Krismen's eyes cycle through a range of colors triggered by their emotional state (and sometimes physical distress). Downplayed in that because most humans have little to no experience with krismen, they have a hard time getting a read on Khat.
  • Family of Choice: Sagai's family to Khat. He not only lives with them and helps support them, they're the only people he trusts to get close to him either physically or emotionally.
  • Fantastic Caste System: Charisat's population is neatly divvied up into factions: wealthy patricians, scholars and traders, non-citizen humans, and foreigners. Even methods of execution for condemned criminals are decided by caste rather than the nature of the crime.
  • Fantastic Racism: Humans view the bio-engineered krismen as subhuman and soulless, and tend to assume they're inherently untrustworthy and violent, making it near-impossible for a kris to establish any kind of legal or stable life in human cities.
  • Fantasy Contraception:
    • Humans and Krismen are not interfertile, making kris males a popular choice of casual hook-up for upper-class human women.
    • Khat doesn't fully understand the social ramifications of human pregnancy, since a kris woman who doesn't want a child can simply discard a new egg sac rather than implant it in her (or her partner's) pouch.
  • Fantasy Metals: Mythenin is a silvery metal only found in Ancient relics. Unusually for the trope, it's only valuable for its historic significance; it has no useful properties that contemporary smiths know of, and none of the surviving Magitek is usable or replicable, so people leave it as-is or use it to forge more valuable relics.
  • Fictional Currency: Non-citizens aren't allowed to handle minted coins, so they trade using a combination of barter and trade tokens that can be redeemed for a given number of days of artisan labor. The disadvantage is that the city can declare trade tokens void whenever it wants to get rid of its non-citizen population.
  • Fire-Forged Friends:
    • Khat and Sagai got together after Khat rescued Sagai from cannibalistic Desert Bandits and Sagai then saved Khat from dying of his injuries in the Waste. Khat was violently antisocial at the time, but still grew into Family of Choice with Sagai's wife and children.
    • Elen first hires Khat as a guide, but they slowly grow into a strong Interclass Friendship as they find themselves thrown into saving the world together.
  • Fling a Light into the Future: The Ancients created the krismen so that at least something mostly human would be able to survive in the wasteland consuming the known world. (And then it turned out that normal humans could live on the fringes of it just fine, so now the krismen are a hated underclass whenever they leave the desert to do business in the cities.)
  • Fortune Teller: There's no shortage of them in Charisat, burning carved bones in order to see visions of the future for anyone willing to cough up a few trade tokens. Most are thought to be charlatans, but it's implied that at least a few are genuinely divining the future.
  • Good Parents: Sagai and Miram are Happily Married and take good care of an ever-growing, close-knit brood of children. They also look after the neighbourhood's children.
  • Godzilla Threshold: It's eventually revealed that the creation of the West was a side effect of whatever the Ancients did to hold off the Inhabitants. We only see what a lone, severely weakened Inhabitant can do, and it's still a nightmarish enemy.
  • Guile Hero: Khat isn't strictly bad in a fight (though he does get beaten up a lot), but when he does have success in physical combat it can usually be attributed to his use of less-than-straightforward tactics or occasionally his kris characteristics. He's physically a fairly average dude, and contrary to everyone's expectations, excels in complex logic and interpersonal pursuits more than physical.
  • Happily Married: Sagai and Miram love, trust, and look after each other, and have for many years. They're Good Parents to their growing brood of close-knit children, Family of Choice to Khat, and well-regarded figures in the neighbourhood.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: The Heir does take a moment to question Khat about his relic search when she captures him, but she really wants to sleep with him. He goes along with it. Though she clearly wouldn't be his first choice of partner, he is no stranger to casual sex and doesn't seem to be particularly troubled by the experience.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: When Khat, Sagai, and Elen question the academia scholar about the relics they think he bought, they know his denials are false when he says he never had anything to do with a "fourth tier" dealer—they hadn't mentioned Radu's standing.
  • Inventional Wisdom: Khat eventually discovers that the Remnant and the three artifacts are designed to open up the Sealed Evil in a Can that the apocalypse a thousand years ago stopped. He immediately asks why anyone build an off button in the device that was currently and continuously saving the world. It is theorized that the Ancients were just thorough as a matter of course; for example, the Remnants are designed such that it's impossible to be trapped inside one. It turns out that there is a way to permanently seal away the Inhabitants, but last time the ritual was interrupted. To finish it, someone has to open the door again and go inside.
  • Ideal Illness Immunity: Krismen are bio-engineered to be highly resistant to the venom of various desert creatures, as well as immune to heatstroke and most diseases that afflict humans—and also can't be affected by Warders' soul reading or the Inhabitants' Mind Rape. However, they can contract infection from bad wounds or from forcing foreign objects into their pouch.
  • Interclass Friendship: Khat and Elen become Fire-Forged Friends as they save the world together, despite the fact that she's near the top of the Fantastic Caste System and he's firmly at the bottom. Her preconceptions about lower-class citizens and his profound distrust of Patricians are definite stumbling blocks along the way.
  • Interservice Rivalry: Both the Warders and the trade inspectors/Justices function as a sort of police force in Charisat, though their priorities and methods are usually very different. But when they do come into play with each other, there is demonstrated antipathy and mistrust between them.
  • Justified Criminal: Khat, and to a lesser extent Sagai. They do their best to operate on the right side of the law, but as non-citizens on the lower tiers, they do sometimes have to dip into the Black Market, and Khat is also prone to getting into fights (though those usually go overlooked by law enforcement unless they happen close enough to docks or shops to be considered "obstructing trade").
  • Last Kiss: Khat and Elen share one at the very end. They're attracted to each other, and there's some stirring of romantic feelings, but Khat thinks they're too different socially (especially now that Elen is Master Warder) and he has too many trust issues to pursue a relationship, and now he's moving to another city with no intentions of returning.
  • Last of His Kind: Very downplayed instance: Khat is the last kris of his lineage, and his home enclave are very anxious for him to find a kris mate so his line doesn't die out. It's not made clear to the reader why his lineage is considered so important, however, and Khat himself wastes exactly zero angst on this dilemma—it's the least of his worries after the kris embassy leaves Charisat.
  • Little Bit Beastly: Although krismen and humans are not cross-fertile, krismen appear mostly human aside from their distinctive color-changing eyes, pointed teeth, and marsupial pouch. One human woman, when having sex with a kris, actually expresses disappointment at how similar his anatomy is to a human male's.
  • Living Relic: The Ancient that Khat speaks with in the corridor, who has been "alive" in a liminal Place Beyond Time for a thousand years and has information about The Beforetimes that was never set down in the archaeological record. Unfortunately, moments after he leaves that place, he is reduced to dust.
  • Long Hair Is Feminine: Inverted; fashionable patrician woman wear their hair cropped very short (originally as protection against the heat, now out of tradition).
  • Lost Technology: Charisat's markets do a booming trade in relics, pieces of technology left over from the pre-apocalyptic Ancients, valued because no one has the know-how to create them anymore. Interestingly, almost none of them actually work any more; they are valued for their history and rarity, not their actual power. A very few, such as the pain rods, actually have power that can be harnessed by the wielder. Some scholars devote their whole lives trying to figure out the workings of relics.
  • Mind Probe: The Inhabitants can read the mind of a nearby human for information, which is agonizing to the point of incapacitation for the victim. Kris are immune, as Khat gratefully discovers when in the custody of the Heir.
  • Mister Seahorse: Krismen, male and female, have marsupial pouches to gestate their young, which start out as egg sacs that are manually transferred into the pouch.
  • Mood Ring Eyes: Kris eyes change colors with their moods. If you understand the colors, this makes it very easy to tell when they are lying; presumably, this was an intentional feature on the part of their creators. Luckily for Khat, everyone else is too racist to learn how the eye colors work, so he can look people in the eye and lie without fear. He notably has a lot more trouble meeting the gaze of another kris.
  • Moving-Away Ending: Sagai and Miram eventually decide to move away to a city with more of their relatives and less Fantastic Racism. Khat goes with them for the same reasons, explaining to Elen that they're too different for their budding romance to go anywhere.
  • Mysterious Veil: Upper-class characters in Charisat veil their faces most of the time, for a variety of reasons—fashion, modesty, keeping the dust out of one's face, hiding one's identity...
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: Many characters (and Khat in particular) swear all the time, but we're never told any of the actual oaths.
  • The Navigator: Khat, like all kris, has a perfect innate sense of true north. Elen notes that it's "impossible for kris to get lost". ...Unless they're tossed into another dimension.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Khat lived for awhile in the academia, is learned in Ancient/Survivor lore, speaks and reads a variety of languages, and is generally observant and savvy. However, since most people reflexively distrust kris, he frequently hides or downplays these skills, letting people think he's just a low-tier criminal opportunist. It saves his life more than once.
  • Orphaned Etymology: In-universe. A key part of the story regards the "Inhabitants of the West," and the "Doors to the West." The Inhabitants turn out to be demons from Another Dimension. Constans asks why it's called "the West." Khat explains that this appears to be the Ancient word for the land of the dead, though how that got affiliated with the direction is unclear.
  • Our Spirits Are Different: People rightly fear air spirits and evil ghosts, since they're invisible and can freeze a person to death with a touch. They're later revealed to be the faded remnants of Inhabitants of the West who got trapped in the physical world, which are much nastier.
  • Out of the Frying Pan: Lampshaded when Khat and Sagai escape the clutches of Lushan's thugs, only to be arrested by Warders.
    Sagai: Out of the pot and into the coals!
  • Plot Coupon: Khat and co. are searching for a set of three relics (one of which the Warders already hold) that will fit together into what they hope is an arcane engine.
  • Pose of Supplication:
    • When Khat is arrested by the Heir, he is forced to his knees by security; after that, when he sees her, he drops to his knees without any provocation, seeing nothing to be gained by defiance.
    • Lampshaded later when Khat meets the Elector and collapses from a fever, but he thinks to himself that it's fine because he's probably supposed to be on the floor anyway.
    • A relic collector's manservant genuflects to him in a way that's outdated and highly beyond what's appropriate for the collector's rank. Elen makes a note of it to Blackmail the collector.
  • Psychic Block Defense: Warders have the power to "read" humans' presence and surface thoughts, but also learn to shield their own minds from reading. Krismen have an innate mental shield that also works against the Inhabitants' Mind Probe, leading the more racist Warders to speculate that the kris have no souls.
  • Psychic Powers: The Warders' magical abilities, which allow them to sense others' presence, thoughts, and emotions; create illusions; and exercise some telekinetic ability.
  • Race Fetish: Krismen are unusual in human cities, and male kris in particular are considered desirably exotic. Khat gets propositioned a lot by random strangers. He notes that before Elen, none of them had taken much interest in him as a person.
  • Rank Up: After opening up the extent of her suppressed powers during the novel's climax, Elen is made Master Warder—much to her chagrin.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Riathan completes the ritual to open the corridor, but when he finally realizes just how nasty the Inhabitants are, he throws all his power into creating a shield to prevent them from fully entering the human world, killing himself in the process.
  • Reformed Criminal: Khat is still morally ambiguous and shady in the eyes of the law (thanks, poverty and racism!), but he's come a long way from his former ways as a housebreaker and fence for a small-time crime lord.
  • Refused Reunion: Khat moved to Charisat to escape both his extended family's hostility and the threat of an Arranged Marriage, so when he learns that a delegation of Krismen are in town and want to see him, he avoids them like the plague. Ultimately, he moves away with his Family of Choice without having anything to do with the Krismen.
  • Relationship Upgrade: Subverted. Elen hesitantly asks to court Khat, but although he briefly considers it, decides their differences in stature are just not reconcilable and turns her down. They do kiss, though.
  • She Will Come for Me: Zig-zagged:
    • Khat assumes Elen will bail him out when he's arrested by trade inspectors, but after a night of torture, he begins to assume she's abandoned him. He's then shocked when he's released, and a haggard Elen tells him she spent all night arguing to get him out of custody.
    • Inverted when Khat is abducted by Lushan's thugs—he is rescued (sort of) by Sagai, whom he had explicitly told not to come after him.
    • Later still, when he is in the custody of the Elector, Khat assumes Elen will try to help him, but that she won't have any real power to do so. Heartwarmingly, he is correct on the first count and wrong on the second.
  • Sheltered Aristocrat: Elen is one when she first meets Khat: afraid to drop her veil, shocked at the crowding and uncleanliness in non-citizen living quarters, scandalized by Khat's unorthodox treatment for a venomous animal bite. After spending awhile running around the lower tiers hunting for relics, she grows out of it.
  • Showing Up Chauvinists: Elen struggles with being a rare female Warder Magic Knight, further complicated by her being an Inept Mage. By the end of the book, she's hugely increased her magical power, helped save the world, defeated her chauvinistic Evil Mentor, and been instated as Master Warder.
  • Spirit World: The "West", thought by scholars to be the land of the dead. It turns out to be Another Dimension full of malevolent spirits.
  • Standard Post-Apocalyptic Setting: The Ancients brought about a catastrophe that reduced most of the known world to a desert wasteland that's populated with isolated human city-states, bio-engineered "krisman" enclaves, and cannibalistic bandit bands. There is a thriving trade in Ancient cultural artifacts and in the few surviving scraps of Magitek.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Elen, one of the few women to join the Warders, initially disguises herself as a man in a Mysterious Veil. Khat sees through it in less than a day.
  • Suck Out the Poison: Khat does this to Elen when she's bitten by a spider mite in the Waste. Somewhat justified in that 1) he himself is immune to the venom, 2) his mouth is cleaner than his bloody knife—the only other sharp object at hand, 3) the venom is concentrated in a pustule around the wound, and 4) it isn't meant to be a long-term treatment—just to keep her from dying in the next few hours until she can get back to Charisat for actual medical treatment.
  • Thirsty Desert: The Waste, and to some degree parts of Charisat as well. You risk heatstroke if you stay in direct sunlight for long, water is difficult to come by, and you can literally choke on the dust in the air.
  • Token Good Teammate: Gandin is about the only white Warder who doesn't behave like a violent dick to Khat.
  • Took a Level in Badass: One side effect of the ritual Riathan performs with the gathered relics is that Elen discovers her mentor had been suppressing her power for years out of a need to control her, so far from being magically weak as she's always thought, she's among the most powerful of all Warders.
  • Torture Always Works: Or at least the inhabitants of Charisat seem to assume it does: it's not only common, but required, for legally admissible testimony by non-citizens to be extracted via torture. And when Khat is arrested by trade inspectors, he holds out against relatively minor torture for one night, but thinks he will certainly spill the information he's withholding as soon as they ramp up their methods. Fortunately, Elen bails him out before he's further tested.
  • Treasure Chest Cavity: All krismen of both genders have a pouch on the front of their body designed to hold young. It comes in handy when Khat is able to use his to hide a tiny relic when he is arrested and tortured by trade inspectors, though its uses do seem limited—if the item had been any larger, it would have bulged and been obvious to an onlooker, and putting foreign objects in one's pouch can make a kris seriously ill.
  • Unspecified Apocalypse: The disaster that created the Waste left no historic or archaeological record of how or why it happened. Subverted late in the story, when the Ancient manuscript reveals it to have been a side effect of the magic the Ancients used to hold off the Inhabitants.
  • Unwilling Suspension: When Khat is arrested by the Trade Inspectors, he's left overnight with his hands chained over his head. Unusually for the trope, it is intended as a method of torture, and he's much worse for wear afterwards.
  • Urban Segregation: Charisat is built in eight tiers, with each higher tier being appreciably cleaner, wealthier, more peaceable, and with a fresher and more abundant water supply. It seems that tiers one through three are truly high class, inhabited by patricians and Warders; tiers four and five are comfortable but not elite, requiring more security and housing most of the legal merchant districts; and six through eight are typical Wretched Hive fare, with the eighth tier basically being a dump crawling with starving beggars who are barely managing not to be pushed out into the Waste. It's difficult for people of all classes to move through the tiers without special dispensation (or in the very rare case of upper-class citizens moving downward, attracting a lot of unwanted attention).
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist:
    • Constans is insane and a murderer many times over, but he's also one of the only characters in the know who is trying to do the right thing rather than angling for power.
    • Riathan is one during the (small) window in his quest after he figured out what gathering the relics together would actually do (at which point he became an extremist) and before he was so blinded by greed that his goal was still to help future generations of Warders (at which point he was still well-intentioned),
  • White-Collar Crime: In the form of art forgery—surprisingly common for such a squalid, post-apocalyptic setting. Because scholars rely so much on ancient documents to learn about the world they currently inhabit, they'll pay through the nose for Survivor texts and artifacts, so a successful detailed, well-researched forgery can make someone very wealthy.
  • Winds Are Ghosts: Winds are associated specifically with evil souls, since good people are believed to rest in peace beneath the earth after death. Khat gets nervous at sudden breezes, having seen the frigid remains of ghosts' victims. It's ultimately revealed that the "ghosts" are evil spiritual invaders from Another Dimension.