- Hollow Empire, by Sam Hawke. Bantam. $32.99.
Sam Hawke is an award-winning Canberra author who deserves to be better known amongst the general reading public.
Hawke's debut novel, City of Lies (2018) won the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel, the Ditmar Award for Best Novel, and the Norma K Hemming Award for excellence in exploring issues of gender, race, disability and class in SF and fantasy.
Hawke, who is also a lawyer, says that in City of Lies, she merged, "the transportive sense of possibility (and impossibility) in fantasy, with "the suffocating tension and sense of danger of a closed room murder mystery, where you don't know who to trust and everyone's lying all the time".
Hawke's closed room is the city of Silasta where brother and sister, poison "proofers", Jovan and Kalina, search for the traitor who is trying to kill the new Chancellor, Tain and bring down the government.
The plotline of City of Lies is summarised in a play at the beginning of Hollow Empire, echoing a similar device in Game of Thrones.
New readers therefore don't have to go back to the first book to appreciate the Poison War narrative, recounted alternatively by Jovan and Kalina.
Jovan and Kalina are far from stereotype fantasy characters.
Both have medical frailties.
Jovan has OCD, while Kalina, more a diplomatic spy than poison taster, has an immune disorder which causes pain and chronic fatigue.
Most of Hollow Empire, set over 550 pages, is again set in Silasta, but more crowded than ever through hosting neighbouring trading partners.
New threats emerge from the multicultural melange as members of the three original founding families, notably Jovan, Kalina and Tain, are targeted by assassisn and Jovan is framed for a drug murder.
The deadliest threat, however, comes from outside with the forces of the Prince of Crede.
It's he who harnesses ancient racial grievances with a powerful spiritual power.
Silasta will be destroyed unless the members of the three original families are given up.
All the resources of Jovan, Kalina, and Jovan's erstwhile lover, the prickly Hadrea, will be needed, even as they battle their own personal traumas and self-doubt.
Hawke cleverly builds real-world issues into her plotline, such as the danger of fake history/news, religious fanaticism, misogyny, as well as attitudes to mental issues.
Hollow Empire's strong narrative, detailed world building and in-depth characterisation amply confirm Hawke's position as one of Australia's leading imaginative authors.
This is a great summer read for lovers of fantasy and science fiction.