West, Michelle. The House War: The Hidden City. DAW : 2008. ISBN: 978-0756404703
I read a lot, but mostly at night tucked in bed, just before I fall asleep. Any book that shuts down my internal editor is quite good. If I find one keeps me awake longer than an hour, it’s excellent. If I must force myself to close the book’s covers and turn out the light, it’s a delight.
It had been a while since I found a book that kept me reading into the wee hours of the morning, but then I discovered Michelle West (aka Michelle Sagara) had a new book coming out, and I snagged a copy.
The House War: The Hidden City kept me up several nights and I had to sacrifice several hours on a Saturday to free myself of its grip. Even then it didn’t let go. I started a reread a week later, which speaks clearly to the love I have for this novel, and eventual series.
Rath, a nobleman who has relinquished ties to his family and chosen to live in the slums of Averalaan, is solitary and prefers it that way. He first encounters Jewel, a ten-year old orphan, when she steals his satchel, and caught by a sense of her regret and shame, follows her to the bridge she calls home. Discovering she is ill and unable to abandon this child to her obvious fate, he brings her home.
Rath and Jewel begin an uneasy relationship. Rath questions his original decision to rescue Jay, as she is called by friends, the more so when she rescues other orphans and creates a family of her own. At the same time, he cares about the child and trains her in the use of a dagger. From him, she learns the byways of the underground city, which is where Rath finds relics to sell.
Jay’s own secret—her unreliable ability to see the future—is not easily shared, even as it allows her to save abandoned and mistreated children like herself. When she finally confesses this skill, Rath understands that she has talent few possess. Reluctantly, he helps her rescue the children she finds, only to be caught in a plot that is deeper than simple cruelty and depravity. This is not an easy world: demons walk disguised as humans and must not only be confronted, but defeated.
While Rath’s and Jay’s growing relationship is the backbone of this tale, Michelle West creates a very real world, more than the average fantasy provides and grittier. Life is not pretty on the streets of Averalaan; children are bought and sold into brothels and trust is not easily won—even among those whom you label friends. The ultimate betrayal slices at that trust.
But a sense of history permeates this novel, particularly with the addition of the ruins of the ancient city beneath the squalor. Unknown mages, a more advanced culture the present inhabitants have mostly forgotten, and a bridge that separates the Order of Knowledge and the Houses of the powerful from the lowly suggests even more lies hidden.
While Rath slips between them all, and Jay sees what others would prefer to remain unseen.
It’s a long book—over six hundred pages—with three other volumes to follow. But treat yourself and read this one, especially if you think fantasy has nothing new to offer. I haven’t been this entranced by a series since I discovered Lois McMaster Bujold and Miles Vorkosigan.