When we last left Isoka, aboard the mysterious ghost-ship Soliton, she had managed to rally the denizens of the ship to her side, gain a better understanding of her second Well of magic, (Eddica the Well of Spirits), and managed to keep the majority of people safe from the threat of the Vile Rot. Now, Soliton sails onward, to colder climes, with no one knowing where they’re headed. Isoka, called the Deepwalker and now defacto leader for her exploits in Ship of Smoke and Steel, works with her girlfriend Meroe (a royal mage-born exile with the ability to heal), and the rest of the crew to prepare for the worst. But no one is prepared to land on a tropical island in the middle of nowhere, filled with strange beasts, the undead, and a warlord intent on consuming Isoka and all she can do.
Meanwhile, back in the corrupted metropolis of Kahnzoka, Tori, Isoka’s little sister, continues to live a life that Isoka has bought for her through her work in the underworld: living up in the Second Ward of the city, Tori doesn’t lack for care, education, food, or luxury. But she harbors two secrets: not only does she sneak out at night, to care for refugees and mage-born hunted down by Imperial forces, she herself is a mage-born with a rare and thrilling well, that of the mind itself. As she grows in power and falls in love, Tori finds herself at the center of a potential revolution, learning what can bloom from unintended consequence, and power used without thought.
In City of Stone and Silence, book two of the Wells of Sorcery, Wexler doesn’t let the inertia from the end of book one ebb, throwing our protagonists right into another mystery. Isoka, an able and skilled warrior using her Melos Well, which produces energy swords and shields around her, is less skilled in her ability to communicate with the dead and what that may mean for her. And here, on this island at the end of the world, she’ll need to learn about that other power of hers, and fast. The people they meet are literally out of time, a part of a world a century ago, and Isoka, Meroe, and their crew need to act fast if they’re going to keep everyone safe from a much more skilled and seemingly immortal Eddica adept.
Wexler continues to test Isoka to great success; where Ship of Smoke and Steel had Isoka ask the question of if she could care about other people, and could she rise to the opportunity to protect those around her, City of Stone and Silence pushes that idea even further: now that Isoka is a leader, what does that mean to her? Why is she always putting herself in danger and forcing others to take a backseat? And why is she so intent on leading alone when there are others who can help her? This especially comes to a head with Meroe, who desperately wants to help Isoka task manage and delegate, and keep her from running headfirst into every problem she sees, while Isoka is terrified of losing Meroe, to the point that she wants to put the princess under house arrest. While the answer to both of these issues may seem simple, both are hard for Isoka to grapple and come to terms with, and it’s only because of her being an excellently drawn, complex character, that the solutions to these above problems become a part of her growth and maturation.
And while time with Isoka on the island is engrossing, its back in Kahnzoka that this book truly shines, as we get to finally spend time with Tori, and get to see firsthand the issues plaguing the city. Sheltered and smothered by the people her sister hired to look out for her, Tori has found release and escape in making her way down to the Eleventh Ward, and helping take care of the displaced and the mage-born who are running from Imperial forces. Anyone who can work magic, of little or great skill, is taken in to serve, as either soldiers or breeders to make more mage-born. And Tori, with a rare Well and ability, does her best to help others around her. As checkpoints and raids for mage-born increase with alarming frequency, Tori has to learn to be a leader in her own right, as the ordinary citizens of Kahnzoka are sick of the imperial regime.
While her troubles reflect Isoka’s from the first book somewhat, there is an additional, horrible wrinkle: Tori can control people’s minds. Using her Well, she can influence people, trick them, nudge them in certain directions, and as she gets more skilled and focused, those nudges become directives, those tricks deadly and misleading. Wexler writes telepathy like a horror novel, because to Tori, it is. Whenever she’s in someone’s mind, it makes her sick, becoming worse the deeper she pushes. Wexler never tries to write these moments off as less than invasive, but does an excellent job pivoting Tori’s feelings about it; as the rebellion begins, as she becomes more of a leader and influencer, she has to grapple with using her powers, no matter who it hurts in the process. Once again, we see what power can do to people, and Tori’s is a story of unintended consequences ripping their way across a city, with a young woman stuck in the middle trying her best to keep it all from falling apart.
In City of Stone and Silence, Wexler continues to interrogate what power does and can do for people who are unused to having it, and given an opportunity to step up. From the shores of an island out of time, to the streets of a tyrannical regime, Isoka and Tori are forced to step up and really understand the things they would do to save their people from those looking to destroy them. These two characters, sisters separated by many miles, are the beating heart of an accessible epic fantasy with detailed, engrossing worldbuilding, and prose that moves a mile a minute. Populated with complex secondary characters, and still plenty of mysteries to unravel, I can only eagerly await book there, where I imagine Isoka and Tori will meet again, and bring both threads of their story together for an epic conclusion.
City of Stone and Silence is available from Tor Teen.
Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.