Undead Camels, Angry Spirits, and Prickly Protagonists: The Unconquered City by K.A. Doore

The Unconquered City marks the third—and so far final—novel in K.A. Doore’s Chronicles of Ghadid series. The Chronicles tell a set of loosely-connected stories centred on the desert city of Ghadid and the loosely-related family of assassins who correct injustice (for a fee) and who, over the course of the three novels, have evolved into a force dedicated to protecting the city from the dangerous guul that roam the desert sands below. From the start, the books in Chronicles of Ghadid series have combined elements of classic sword and sorcery with refreshingly queer romantic elements, and a delightful diversity of protagonists and interests. And The Unconquered City follows enthusiastically in its predecessors’ footsteps.

Illi Basbowen is approximately a decade younger than the protagonists of The Perfect Assassin and The Impossible Contract. Seven years have passed since the events of The Impossible Contract, and Ghadid has begun to rebuild from its Siege. But the scars remain: a lot of people died, and grief remains strong. Especially for Illi, whose post-traumatic stress reaction to losing her parents and witnessing the deaths of large numbers of her neighbours has manifested as a burning determination to be able to protect her city and a reluctance to form lasting relationships outside of the handful she already has. Illi trains relentlessly, and restricts herself to short-term sexual liaisons with caravan guards who’re only visiting Ghadid for a little while—and who can perhaps teach her some new tricks for fighting with.

The latest of these temporary liaisons is Canthem, a nonbinary elite guard (part of the “Guul Guard” from the kingdom of Hathage) who has come to Ghadid accompanying an ambitious general, Merrabel Barca. Barca has come to track down Heru Sametket and compel him to hand over everything he has that’s linked to the sajaami (an incorporeal being of great power which readers will remember as an important part of The Impossible Contract).

Heru, for all his arrogance and self-absorption, is one of the handful of people that Illi counts as a friend. She trusts him, mostly—though she’s horrified when she learns that he might have put Ghadid in danger and considers it a betrayal. When disaster strikes his workshop, she trusts him enough to let him bind the sajaami into her body rather than let its power be unleashed, but this isn’t a real solution. Eventually the power will burn Illi up, and Heru doesn’t know how to prevent it—and besides, he’s just been exiled from Ghadid. Answers may lie in Hathage, but the journey is one of many dangers, betrayals, self-discovery and growth: and for Illi, the awkwardness of sharing lengthy close quarters with someone she’d thought of basically as a one-night stand and for whom she might actually be developing feelings.

Illi’s growth as a person is closely tied to what she encounters on her journey, and what she learns about herself. The Unconquered City is partly a story about undead camels, necromancy, angry spirits, batshit magic, negotiating with mentor figures (including some who betray you), murder, really dangerous ancient spirits, and visiting fascinating new places where some people may want to kill you, but it’s also the story of a prickly, defensive young woman who is afraid of allowing people to risk themselves for her as she learns to actually let other people close to her, and to let herself rely on other people to support her—and learns which people she can or should trust to do that. She has three mentor figures, one in Heru Sametket, one in Merrabel Barca, and one in Thana Basbowen. All of these mentors let her down in some fashion, but she learns from all of them—and some of them come through for her, in the end.

Speaking of letting people in: Illi’s relationship with Canthem and their back-and-forth is delightfully rendered: a love story from rocky beginnings that feels deep and authentic and—at appropriate points—really fucking awkward. Canthem is in themself a compelling character, one who doesn’t put up with Illi’s bullshit, and an excellent foil for Illi. And after the events of The Impossible Contract, I didn’t expect to see Heru with a heroic arc, but his growth and choices proved to be very satisfying laid alongside Illi’s youthful journey of self-discovery.

Fast-paced, well-characterised, and set in a fascinating world, The Unconquered City stands alone well while also being a very satisfying capstone to the whole series. I recommend it, and I can’t wait to see what K.A. Doore does next.

The Unconquered City is available from Tor Books.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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