LitStack Review: City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett
City of Blades
Book Two of The Divine Cities Series
Robert Jackson Bennett
Release Date: January 26, 2016
In 2014, Robert Jackson Bennett wrote a book, City of Stairs, about a world whose gods had died. Or rather, been killed. And when they died or disappeared, all that they had imbued with their divinity was undone: the architecture, the infrastructure, the culture – all gone in the Blink of an eye. This upheaval occurred when Saypur, a land of slaves used merely to be fodder for the Divine, rose up under the leadership of the charismatic Kaj, prevailing not only through conquest but by the ability to work without the intercession of miracles. Once the gods were either dead or in hiding, those who had once been oppressed became powerful, seizing any remaining miraculous objects and locking them away, reclaiming human potential and forbidding even the mention of the Divine. Bulikov, a city that had once been the apex of the gods, became a final battlefield in the struggle.
That story continues in City of Blades. Voortyashtan, once the home of the powerful goddess of war and death, who commanded a legion of inhuman warriors bent solely on destruction and warfare, is in a state of transition. The harbor that had been closed by a great cataclysm is being reopened, and Voortyashtan is poised to become an economic powerhouse. But the engineers of the project are Draylings, and the troops that patrol the coast are from Saypur, while the downtrodden Voortyastanis fight amongst their Highland clans while harrying the foreigners in their midst.
Then the government of Saypur hears rumors that a strange ore has been found in Voortyashtan, an ore with amazing conductive properties that could revolutionize technology for years to come. Saypur’s prime minister, Shara Komayd (a central character in City of Stairs), calls one of her trusted generals out of retirement to surreptitiously investigate the mysterious ore and determine if it contains remnants of the Divine, as well as investigate the disappearance of another government agent. What the general finds is that the truth is far more complicated than initially feared – and far more dangerous.
City of Blades brings back one of the most intriguing supporting characters from the first book of The Divine Cities series: General Turyin Mulaghesh, the foul mouthed, pissed off, brass tacks soldier who became one of the heroes of the Battle of Bulikov. After that conflict, Turyin is satisfied to draw on her meager pension and retire to a small hut by the sea. It takes a threat from the embattled prime minister to roust Turyin from her isolation, but once the general’s instincts hint that the ore is actually the byproduct of a much larger menace, her military discipline kicks in and she becomes a jowly bulldog that refuses to let go of a lead even when it appears to be pulling her towards utter ruin.
While other characters from City of Stairs figure into this story – most notably the nordic-esque giant Sigrud Harkvaldsson in a compelling secondary plot – this is Turyin’s show. She struggles to muzzle her in-your-face manner in an attempt to appear to be benign, but we see her discomfort at having to play nice when she would rather be confronting problems head on. When the discoveries she makes lead deep into her past, we are plunged into a gripping story that transfixes on many different yet interwoven levels. This is complex, masterful storytelling, and it succeeds exponentially as each section builds on the one before, building to a stunning climax.
City of Blades, as with City of Stairs before it, is not an easy read; its ideas of divinity and its political machinations require a certain detachment from our own deep seated assumptions, and the actions in play are often brutal and even grotesque, but the book would suffer greatly were that not the case. The narrative feels honest – at times, even raw – with no one protagonist proving to be either an immaculate saint or an abject sinner. Instead the book is filled with real, often tragically flawed, and highly compelling characters caught up in events far beyond their intent, or even their making.
Playing on the world first conceived in City of Stairs and building from it, yet nevertheless episodic rather than a strict sequel, City of Blades quickly distinguishes itself as a highly rewarding read in its own merit, and one that will linger on in the imagination as being both unique and vivid. Here’s hoping that any more installments to this series are just as good.
~ Sharon Browning