Book: “City of Blades” by Robert Jackson Bennett
Publishing Info: Broadway Books, January 2016
Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!
Book Description: 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 to 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?
Previously read: “City of Stairs”
Review: It’s been over a year now since I read the first book in this series, “City of Stairs” and in that time the third and final book, “City of Miracles” has been published. I’d like to say I plan my reviews like this, as I have a preference for reading series in a binge-like style and this works best when that series is completed. But the honest answer is that I get distracted by the million other good books out there, so when I am reminded of a good series by a more recent publication…it just a lucky coincidence for my binge-reading style!
That said, “City of Blades” is not a direct sequel to “City of Stairs,” picking up several years after the fact and re-focusing the story on General Turyin Mulaghesh who we met in the first book when she fought off a resurgence of Gods in Bulikov alongside our heroes of that book, Shara and Sigrud. Now, years later, Shara has been elected Prime Minister, Sigrud has been roped into a delegate role, representing his nation of origin, and Mulaghesh has retreated in retirement, suddenly quitting, for unknown reasons, the political atmosphere in which she had been steadily rising. But things are not all well on the Continent and Shara, whose popularity has greatly waned (turns out many people can’t and won’t just forget a past that was ruled by cruel Gods), calls on one of the few people she still trusts to discover what has been going on in the city of Voortystan, the capital city of the late Voortya, Goddess of War. So Mulaghesh is off, albeit grumpily, to a city that is in the midst of a forced transformation to the modern, but whose past is perhaps more close than anyone would have guessed.
I had really and truly forgotten just how excellent this series is. This book, like “City of Stairs” before it, checks all the boxes for fantasy I love. World-building is excellent. The characters are complicated, interesting, and, importantly, have a wicked sense of humor. The themes are drawn upon using masterful technique.
While Shara’s story was one of a young woman discovering her dreams are not quite what she once thought, Mulaghesh’s story is that of a middle-aged woman who feels that the imprint she’s left on the world is not one to be proud of. Throughout the story, we have a slow reveal of Mulaghesh’s past history with the military, the choices she and her troops were forced to make, and the influence these choices have had on her life since. Throughout this all, Mulaghesh’s voice is strong, surly, and darkly witty.
Her own story ties neatly into a larger discussion of what it means to be a soldier. Voortya, the Goddess of War, and her followers created a complete culture around this question. War was art. War was life. War was at the center of every choice her people made. And now, decades after the Gods have been killed off, is this fact any different?
One thing that particularly stood out as I was reading this, and that makes Bennett’s writing and his characters so excellent is that he never dumbs things down. Not the mysteries or history for the reader: there were many times that I had to stop reading for a bit to re-order my thinking of the timeline of this world, or how this one magical element or another worked again, as it had been explained chapters ago. And, especially, not his own protagonist. All too often I’ll read a story where the heroine fails to ask the most obvious questions. This is, of course, necessary by the author’s thinking to draw out the mystery or the suspense. In reality, all this does is frustrate the reader and make your characters seem stupid. Mulaghesh is a smart protagonist, and it was beyond satisfying that at multiple points in this story, right when I came up with a theory about what was going on, she almost immediately voiced it herself. This might seem like a small thing, but I truly think that when it comes to the general enjoyment of books like this, it is one of the most crucial elements.
The fantasy elements that are tied up with this complicated history of the Continent and their Gods almost played even better in this book than in the first. Here, we have a deep-dive into one specific divinity and how her influence shaped a people and a city. And, as can be expected with this series at this point, the lingering remains of these long-gone Gods are not quite as distant as the people would wish. I particularly loved the way Voortya’s legacy was brought to life in this book. After the first story, there seemed to be only one path laid forth for bringing these Gods’ stories back into this world and I was half-expecting Bennett to simply recycle this process. Oh me of little faith.
Beyond Mulaghesh herself (who is an utter joy), this book saw the return of our protagonists from the first book, as well. Shara makes a few brief appearances, but Sigrud plays a vital role. Alongside these familiar faces, we get an excellent cast of new characters, including Signe, Sigrud’s long-lost daughter who is a brilliant technician and hopes to restore the city of Voortaystan to a place of influence and innovation.
It’s hard to say whether I liked one of these book more than the other. While “City of Stairs” laid forth an enormous new world and history, full of lost Gods and a bright-eyed leading lady, “City of Blades” presents a darker, more intricate look at one city, one God, and one woman who struggles to define herself and to determine what it means to have lived a life full of violence.
While technically you could probably read this book without checking out the first in the series, why would you?? But for those who were wondering where the story could go from there, never fear. “City of Blades” is a worthy successor and now I’ll move right along to “City of Miracles,” thank you very much. Binging commence!
Rating 10: If you love detailed fantasy stories with a strong dose of action and a grumpy but lovable heroine, this is the book for you!
Find “City of Blades” at your library using WorldCat