I read City of Stairs last year and was absolutely blown away by the story, character development, complex world-building, and underlying theme – not to mention the author’s writing style. When the sequel, City of Blades, was announced, you’d better believe I was all over it.
City of Blades (Divine Cities #2)
Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Version: Amazon Kindle
“The city of Voortyashtan was once the domain of the goddess of death, war, and destruction, but now it’s little more than a ruin. General Turyin Mulaghesh is called out of retirement and sent to this hellish place to try and find a Saypuri secret agent who’s gone missing in the middle of a mission, but the city of war offers countless threats: not only have the ghosts of her own past battles followed her here, but she soon finds herself wondering what happened to all the souls that were trapped in the afterlife when the Divinities vanished. Do the dead sleep soundly in the land of death? Or do they have plans of their own?”
City of Blades is the sequel to City of Stairs and the second installment in the Divine Cities trilogy. While it’s not a continuation of the previous story, it does seek out a few of the major players from its predecessor, pluck them out of whatever they were doing to kill time while waiting to come back to us, and bring them back together again for a whole new tale in a whole new country.
And that’s really what it felt like to me when I read this book: that Mulaghesh, Sigrud, Shara, and Pitry hadn’t just stopped existing after I closed City of Stairs. They kept going, they moved on, they progressed in their lives across the years. They weren’t sitting around waiting for me to take up an interest in them again – the world has changed, and there’s too much to do to wait for the spectator to arrive!
It’s hard to really wrap my head around how I feel about this book, even now, especially when comparing it to its predecessor – something I just can’t help but do, considering they’re part of the same series. City of Stairs was brilliant, and, as the first of the series, it set the bar for the books that would come after – and that bar was set high, lemme tell ya. City of Stairs blew my mind – and not just because Bennett’s complex world and characters were new and exciting, though that did help. But it specifically blew my mind because it managed to make all of the necessary introductions while maintaining a rapid pace, and it wove in an overall theme about organized religion and its use / misuse in politics and war without ever fully taking one side or the other in the debate and without ever coming across as preachy. It’s easy to look at a world you know to be fantasy and judge the actions of a bunch of made-up people, but Bennett didn’t let anyone off the hook that easily: sure, it’s all made up stuff that just fell out of his head, but it is very clear throughout that the gods were never the issue – it was what the people did for, against, and in the names of those gods that was the problem.
Does City of Blades have new locations that are as interesting as Bulikov and its memories of miracles? Not really… until it does. Do we meet new characters who touch us as much as the players in CoS? Not really… until we do. Were the repeat performers as great? They seemed somehow lessened… until they became greater. Was the pace as quick and the themes as thought-provoking? Not at all… and absolutely. Did it blow your mind as much as the first one? No way, no how… and then it did.
I know, right? I’m no damn help. But City of Stairs was carried primarily by Shara, a foreign operative in a hostile country full of dead gods, and as such she was focused on her mission and the mystery she wanted to solve for the sake of a mentor and friend. City of Blades is carried squarely on the already over-burdened back of General Turyin Mulaghesh, one of our carryovers from CoS, the career soldier with a zero-tolerance policy for bullshit. But, as I said, some time has passed, and Mulaghesh’s life has continued in my absence, and the Mulaghesh of CoB is quite different than the one I knew. Sure, she’s still a “don’t start nothin’, there won’t be nothin’ ” kinda gal, and she’s got more full-metal bitch in her than any other character. But she’s now over fifty, and if you read CoS then you already know she’s down to just the one arm. She begins CoB as an old horse put out to pasture; she’s been a warrior her entire life and simply doesn’t know how to be anything other than that, and the new quasi-life she made for herself after Bulikov has left her disenchanted, bitter, lonely, and entirely lost. And it is this woman – this emotionally and mentally scarred wreck that was left behind after Bulikov – who carries us through CoB. But Mulaghesh’s focus on the people has not changed, and it is as firm as ever. She has made it clear from the start that she could give a shit less about the politics and gods and history and plans of all of the players on the board; all she has ever cared about are the people. Thus, CoB‘s focus is on the characters – from Mulaghesh herself to the nameless people we rush past in a burning hallway, we are forced to care about them because she cares so intensely about every single one of them.
Wrap your head around that for a second. Almost five-hundred pages of caring. About everyone. By the end, I was so emotionally drained that I was ready to cry at the least little thing, and I’m not ashamed to say I eventually did hit a point where I couldn’t take it, and it all just came bubbling up and around my eyeballs – and I’m the type of person who typically only cries when someone I personally know quite well has died. But this is Mulaghesh’s moment, and she cares so very, very much.
As Mulaghesh is on center stage here, you can expect the entire story to feel differently than CoS, as well; the first thing I noticed was how much darker it felt – everything was cavernous and crushing, from the dark skies and deep caves to the open brutality and inward reflections. Where CoS seemed to blind you with bright, dazzling brilliance, CoB drags you down into a fathomless sea, where you can revel in weightlessness as you drown.
The focus of City of Blades is war – how it affects soldiers, how it affects economics, how it affects civilizations… and most importantly, how it affects humanity as a whole. But, as is his custom, Bennett uses his imaginary world and his lyrical writing style to make you peel away all the layers of what you think you believe and force you to really think about it. CoB is about war, but it begs you to wonder just how far you would go, how much you personally find acceptable… and if you see it from a different light, through the eyes of a different person, would you still feel so strongly about it? Is war justifiable, and, if so, how far is too far when it comes to the violence being done? Can a few bad deeds be given a pass in the name of the greater good? Where is that fine line between murder-killing and warfare-killing, and who makes that decision? Should soldiers be allowed to question orders with which they personally disagree on moral grounds, and, if so, what sort of impact would that have on the military and that country’s ability to fight and defend itself? And, after it’s all said and done, how does one find redemption? Is forgiveness possible, and, if so, how does one learn to forgive oneself for the wrongs done in the name of progress and the future?
Whew. Okay. Heavy stuff, right? Sigrud and Shara are both present and accounted for, as well, but they are buried under more burdens than ever before. Shara is a politician with a precious secret of her own, and Sigrud finally gets what he wanted in CoS, only to have it all ripped away without even getting to truly appreciate it. And we meet new characters, such as the formidable General Lalith Biswal, perspicacious Signe, and clever Rada Smolisk.
I can almost hear you now: “So if it was so great, why’d you give CoB three yarn balls rather than four?!” And I told you earlier: I am no damn help here. By the time I hit about 25% completion, I was convinced this was going to be a full four-dice rating. By 40%, I had tumbled down to two dice, because I felt it was slowing down rather than picking up. But by 80% I had rapidly shot back up to a four-dice score and held firmly at that rating through the end. While writing this review, I opted to split the difference and go with a three-and-a-half; it might not be entirely fair – it ended on a perfect note, after all – but it most accurately reflects how I felt about the book as a whole.
The third and final installment, City of Miracles, is expected to be published in January 2017, and I do absolutely plan to read that; if you’re thinking of starting the series I will warn you that it is necessary to read them all and read them in order if you plan to understand anything about what’s going on. Overall, I cannot recommend this series – and this novel – enough. Given the state of affairs in our world today, I think more people could do with a reminder that those who make wars usually don’t die in them, and that they can mask it with words like “honor” and “duty” and “god,” but what it all comes down to is money in the form of oil, stone, and dirt. Just ask General Turyin Mulaghesh.