In my review of Red Rising, I asked about what it is that makes you decide whether or not to embark on a new series. Once again, I would like to build off this to ask a slightly different question – what makes you decide to back to a series that you left by the wayside?
I hadn’t meant to abandon reading Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities Trilogy. But unfortunately, life got in the way. I got introduced to the series via the Hugo Awards voting packet last year and with the number of nominees on the ballot, I couldn’t dedicate my time to just one – I had to try and read across all of them in order to make a what I would consider at least a half-informed vote.
I was also halfway through moving overseas at the time – that didn’t help either.
It’s a shame that it’s taken me so long to come back to the series, as this is a wonderfully well-crafted trilogy that deserves a lot of attention. While it does mean some mild spoilers will be unavoidable, I’ll be treating all three books under the one review – to save me from giving the background three times over.
In a previous age, The Continent – ruled over six Divinities capable of miraculous acts – was the centre of all civilisation. The power vested in the people of the Continent allowed them to easily conquer and subjugate other cultures, including the people of Sayapur. Unable to access miracles like the continentals, no one expected Sayapur to ever stage an uprising.
But then one of them discovered how to kill a god.
Without the power of the Divine, the nature of reality on the Continent was warped and fractured, to devastating effect. One of the worst affected regions included the city of Bulikov, where an event referred to as The Blink lead to most of the city just vanishing from existence; resulting in missing people, broken buildings, and routes to nowhere. The latter feature leads to the city being dubbed with the moniker ‘The City of Stairs.’
In the aftermath of the uprising, the oppressed quickly became the oppressors. Sayapur flipped the table, took over the ruins of the continent, and suppressed all Continental religions and cultures. The deprivation of miracles had allowed Sayapur to make significant technological advances over their opponents, which gave them them upper hand. And the military had no qualms about showing off their new-found power.
City of Stairs starts off with the murder of a Sayapurian historian, just as he was meant to give evidence in a blasphemy trial. The job of investigating the murder falls to Shara Thivani, who at first glance, appears to be nothing more than a junior diplomat. But this is a deception – Shara is one of Sayapur’s best-trained spies, and her job is to determine whether or not the historian in question was killed over his research – which dealt with the delicate subject of miracles. Paired with her burly ‘secretary’ Sigrud, Shara uncovers a much deeper conspiracy, and the possibility that one of the Divinities might not be as thoroughly dead as previously thought.
The first novel is very much a slow burn, with the first third of the book mostly dedicated to laying the groundwork for whats to come. What saves it from dragging though is a mixture of Robert Jackson Bennett’s wonderful prose and strong character building. Most of the characters come across fully realised; from the charismatic Vohannes; to the perpetually exasperated Mulaghesh; and the laconic Sigrud. Shara herself is slightly different; enigmatic from the start, she’s a character with a complex backstory and a slippery nature, which makes her a little harder to relate to. This is a slightly daring move, considering she’s the book’s protagonist.
Another reason to excuse the slow pacing at the start of the book is that Bennett needs plenty of time to tend to his world-building, and the payoff is worth it. The books read like alternative history, with technology (initially) stranded around the early 20th century. Sayapur feels very much like a version of South India or Sri Lanka that decided to give the British their comeuppance; while Bulikov feels very much like eastern Europe. The treatment of the Divinities also feels very organic; their one-time presence in recent history and their miracles are presented in a very matter of fact manner, and not at all like magic.
The book felt very tightly put together, and could more than easily act as a stand-alone novel, which is why I may have originally felt like it was OK to leave the series on hold at that point. But the richly crafted world presented in City of Stairs felt like it had many more avenues worth pursuing, even if the mystery presented at the start of the novel had been tied off nicely. And this was what was nagging at me whenever I thought back on the book. What direction did Robert Jackson Bennett take in the next two?
As it turns out, for his next book, he decided to expand both geographically and narratively. In City of Blades, the story moves from Bulikov to Voortyashtan. In the past, Voortyashtan had been the home of the god of war, but in the present day, it’s now just another military outpost manned by the Sayapuris. Like City of Stairs, City of Blades starts off with another possible murder that needs to be solved. But this time around, the erstwhile investigator is not Shara, but my favourite dark-horse character from the previous book; the forever put-upon, no-shits-left-to-give, Turyin Mulaghesh.
While not as tightly plotted as City of Stairs, City of Blades moves at a much quicker pace. It also digs deeply into the themes of war and regret, especially when it expands into both Mulaghesh’s backstory and colonisation and counter-domination of Sayapur and Voortyashtan. While the disappearance of Gods from society resulted in massive global changes, the human cost of the wars both before and after that event cannot be discounted. I was surprised to find it so emotionally raw.
The follow-up, City of Miracles, starts very differently from the previous two – it’s fast-paced and action-packed right from the get-go. The threat presented in City of Miracles is far more immediate than what we’ve previously seen, and the narrative changes to match. And again, with a new book comes a new perspective – and this time it changes to Sigrud. At the start of City of Stairs, it was too easy to mistake Sigrud as a sort of typical anti-hero, but as the book went on, it was revealed that there was more to him than meets the eye. In City of Miracles, Sigrud is now on the receiving end of the the Mulaghesh treatment; except this time we already know the tragic backstroy – it’s his inner melancholy that gets expanded on. If City of Blades dealt mostly with the regrets of war, City of Miracles deals with he power of grief and the struggle of difficult choices.
All three books by themselves are excellent, but its only when I read the entire series from start to finish that I appreciated the amount of work Bennett put into crafting it. Each book approaches things differently: the first book was mostly of a political thriller, and the second a tale of military espionage; while the third was almost a western – I felt some very ‘man with no name’ vibes at times. And they still come together to make up a coherent whole. I can honestly say the series is even better than the sum of all its parts.
For me, it’s 4 stars for the first book and 5 for the other two. And if you still wonder sometimes whether or not to start a new multi-book series, you can take solace in the fact that not only is this one excellent, its also complete.
I’m adding the first book, City of Stairs, to bingo as And So it Begins