The Divine Cities
by Robert Jackson Bennett
(Click subsequent titles to skip to that part of the review)
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Book 1: City of Stairs / 2. City of Blades / 3. City of Miracles
During the Hugo controversy of 2015 I read several comments expressing surprise this novel was not nominated. I was skeptical at first, mainly because fantasy doesn't appeal to me as much as science fiction, plus several other recent, well-reviewed fantasies had not satisfied me. However, when the story, characters, and world-building are this strong and interesting, genre distinctions don't matter much. I could name at least three of the nominees that were not as good, but that's history so I won't identify them. I was fortunate to get an advance e-book of the sequel, City of Blades, so I had to track down a used copy of Stairs to read first. I've just started on Blades, and I'll follow up with comments about it as soon as possible. In a recent blog post, Bennett reported the third novel is finished, but no indication of when it might be released, so I'm sure there will be a long period of editing.
City of Stairs is a slow starter, taking a while for all the details to become apparent. I actually set it aside a couple of times, but eventually persevered, and if you give it a chance you will be rewarded with a rich experience. It's more urban based than the typical "epic" fantasy, yet that adjective is still appropriate. Imagine if you will a world in which gods are (or were) real, that they walked among humans, interacted with them in a symbiotic relationship. Now imagine a human who devised a way to kill the gods. This could be considered an alternate universe tale, with several things that correspond to our reality of a hundred or so years ago, mixed with magical elements that might remind you of the stories of Scheherazade. There are trains and automobiles, but the aircraft built toward the end of the book are a combination of technology and magic similar to flying carpets. Photography has been invented, but only within the past five years or so. Many personal and place names are similar to those in our world. The Continent, the land of the six "Divinities," seems to stand in for our Eastern Europe/Northern Asia, with most names sounding Russian (each of the six districts named for the Divinities ends in "shtan"). The rival country of Saypur might be India or Southeast Asia. One of the more interesting characters is from a northern area similar to Scandanavia.
Bennett weaves a compelling and unpredictable mystery. Generations ago, the Divinities established cities and areas of the Continent for each of their worshippers to live. Eventually they began to cooperate, and in so doing they created a central city, Bulikov, in which was built a great temple, the Seat of the World. Later, they decided to expand their influence to the rest of the world, and for centuries they ruled Saypur and other countries. Saypuris were slaves to the will of the Continent and the Divinities, although one of the gods, Olvos, declined to participate in the expansion of power and had gone into hiding. An incident of sacrilege in a Saypuri village resulted in the massacre of all its inhabitants, which propelled Avshakta si Komayd to experiment in ways to kill the Divinities. He was successful, and Saypur conquered the Continent. This begs the question, if the Divinities were gods, what mortal weapon could defeat them? Perhaps their magic was more like technology not easily understood, and Komayd was simply able to devise a superior technology they hadn't anticipated.
That is all backstory, revealed in flashbacks and short segments of exposition. The novel begins a few generations later, with Saypur ruling the Continent, forbidding its citizens to worship or even utter the names of the Divinities, nor display any icons related to them. At the same time, the Saypur government is studying the Divinities and the various "miracles" they performed, even using some themselves. This angers the Continentals. A researcher is murdered, which propels Ashara Komayd to investigate, although she arrives in Bulikov under the assumed name of Shara Thivani, a "cultural ambassador." In truth, she is an intelligence operative for Saypur's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, great-granddaughter of Avshakta, and perhaps the most knowledgeable on the history of the Divinities and their miracles. Her investigation uncovers multiple factions of Continentals fighting against Saypuri control, while at the same time she develops sympathy for their cause. She also comes to a startling revelation; perhaps not all the Divinities are dead.
No matter how well a writer builds their world, it would be for naught if they didn't populate it with interesting characters. Bennett succeeds at that remarkably well. Along with Ashara Komayd, others of interest are Vinya, Ashara's aunt, head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Vohannes Votrov, a rich Continental, one of the City Fathers of Bulikov, whom Ashara previously met when he studied at a Saypur university; Turyin Mulaghesh, Saypur's governer of Bulikov, also a Colonel in the Saypur military command; Dr. Efrem Pangyui, the murdered researcher, whom we only get to know through Ashara's reminiscences, or when she reads from his journal, along with various epigrams at the head of chapters, quotes from some of his books. Last, but certainly not least, is Sigrud je Harkvaldsson, Ashara's "secretary," a giant of a man who has worked with her since she rescued him from a Continental prison ten or so years previously. He's a tireless investigator, adept at surveillance and infiltration, a fierce warrior, but most of all a survivor, and completely loyal to Ashara. I happened upon a comment that the second book would feature Mulaghesh, which is fine since I like her as well, but I'll be disappointed if Ashara and Sigrud don't also make appearances, either separately or together.
Bennett makes several interesting comments about the nature of faith and morality, of some people's desire for divine providence, while others are free from such necessity. The Divinities themselves were vastly different, from Kolkan's severe restrictions of diet and behavior, to Olvos' love and compassion, with Jukov more akin to the Roman's Bacchus. It is even speculated that the natures of the various Divinities were shaped by the needs and desires of their worshippers rather than the opposite. This relates to how most of our world's religions are culturally based. A major mystery left unsolved is why the Divinities manifested only on the Contintent and not in other areas of the world. In the end, we're left with just one(?) Divinity still alive, that being Olvos, who has no desire to influence the world, since she knows that humanity is capable of acting morally without outside intervention. Ashara intends to do her part in making that a reality.
I received an advance e-book of City of Blades through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Honestly, Blades is even better than the first book. It is full of well-paced action, as well as being philosophical in the moral quandaries faced by the characters. The story picks up four or five years later. Ashara Komayd is Prime Minister of Saypur, intent on lifting the Continent out of the depths of its destruction, although she does not get much support from her Parliament. One thing I didn't mention previously is that when the Divinities were killed, all of their miracles ceased to function and all of their mystical creations disappeared altogether, events that became known as The Blink. The Continent was reduced to rubble since most of the buildings had been created through magic. Bulikov was known as the City of Stairs, but those stairs had been reduced to short sections of steps no longer leading to the magnificent structures that had once graced the city. Ashara's goal is the rebuilding of the Continent's infrastructure, one of the major projects being the reconstruction of Voortyashtan's harbor. Many people believed that Voortyashtan, built by and named for Voortya, the god of war, had been nicknamed City of Blades due to the large rock formations flanking its harbor. We later learn that city lies somewhere else.
The main character now is Turyin Mulaghesh. At the time of the incidents in the first book she was Polis Governor of Bulikov, but also still a member of the Saypur military. I can't recall now, but I don't think much was said about previous events in her career, or if so it was just the merest of hints. We learn in Blades that the Saypur government had done everything they could to make sure no one remembered certain events to which she was connected, most of which occurred when she was still a teen. She had run away from home to join the miltary during its continued war against the Continent some forty years before. Everything she had done since was an attempt at atonement. She had been hailed a hero for her stand against the resurrected Divinities in the Battle of Bulikov, but she was weary of fighting and death, retiring shortly afterwards. Ashara wasn't done with her yet though, and she sends a message to her old comrade that she is needed for one last mission.
Both novels have multiple layers of complexity, but at their heart they are mysteries. In Stairs, the investigation into who killed historian Efrem Pangyui led to revelations about the Divinities and of the miracles they had performed. The new mystery is the disappearance of Sumitra Choudry, an agent of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent to Voortyashtan to investigate the discovery of a heretofore unknown ore with remarkable properties. She was also to look into the activities of local insurgents, who are suspected in the death of the commandant of Fort Thinadeshi. The harbor project, under the supervision of Sigrud's daughter Signe, is threatened by these incidents as well. The fort's new commander is General Biswal, under whom Mulaghesh had served those many years ago, during a campaign known as The Summer of the Yellow March. Both mysteries are complex, with several legitimate suspects to choose from. Biswal's assumptions clash with those of Mulaghesh. He thinks everything revolves around the insurgents, she is sure that various events are not connected, simply occurring at approximately the same time. She also suspects that certain things indicate divine miracles. But how? It is a fact accepted by everyone, even all Voortyashtanians, that their god Voortya is dead. Nothing she created, nothing related to her miracles should be active. And yet...
City of Stairs probably should have been nominated for either a Hugo or Nebula last year. Unfortunately, City of Blades will have to wait another year since it has just been released (1/26/16). It built on the revelations of the first book without treading too much of the same ground. The first book's overall theme concerned the nature of faith, how that differed for various people, what the Divinities meant to the Continentals, as well as how Saypurians dealt with a society without benefit (or restraint) of Divinities. This one dwells more on the nature of service, particularly for the military. Some, like Biswal, think of a military career as a path to taking something, either power or prestige. Mulaghesh is more enlightened, knowing it is for giving, helping others to create a better society, even if the soldier is unable to benefit. Both books also look at the pitfalls of colonialism, both for the oppressed and their oppressors. I shouldn't have doubted Bennett could craft a compelling tale around Mulaghesh, even though I was not aware of her backstory and how that had shaped her world view and her deportment. She's a complex, well-rounded character, intelligent, resourceful and comprehensive in her investigative methods. Both books are unpredictable. It was only a few paragraphs before the reveal that I surmised the culprit in Blades, whereas I was taken by surprise in Stairs. Other than knowing it will feature Sigrud, I have no idea where the story might lead in City of Miracles, but I am very anxious to find out.
I read City of Miracles in another e-book ARC from NetGalley. Its publication date is next Tuesday, May 2, 2017. Full of action and great characters, it's as unpredictable as the first two books. I had previously rated those 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads, but I think I need to change that and boost the entire trilogy to a near perfect 5. The reasons for that will be difficult to explain, because I absolutely do not want to spoil this book. I cannot recommend this series highly enough. If the first book was more about faith, and the second about service, the overall theme in Miracles is that of loyalty and duty. Sigrud je Harkvaldsson comes into his own as he investigates a tragic death, and as he learns of others he needs to protect from the assassins. One thing that should have been obvious before, and is in retrospect, is if all the Divinities were dead, how did any of their miracles still work? Did no one ever consider that the Divinities could procreate?
There were numerous times it seemed Sigrud was doomed, yet he continually managed to survive insurmountable odds and major injuries. He was able to escape (but not defeat) the major foe on more than one occasion. I started to think that maybe he had a touch of the Divine, and even he wondered about his abilities at times. We meet several of the Divine children, who are in fear for their life since it seems there is another intent on killing all of them, incorporating their powers into his own, to remain the only Divinity alive, and thus the strongest the world has ever known. That foe is convinced that one of the people Sigrud is tasked to protect is Divine, but Sigrud has seen no indication of that, and the girl and several others who should know deny it. Early on I suspected that the death Sigrud is investigating was staged, and that the character would reappear later, or I should say that I hoped that was the case. I will not confirm or deny any of those speculations. Nearly every clue laid down was subverted in some way, twisting my expectations in several directions. Only one thing did happen as I suspected (feared), but I wasn't even sure of that until the last chapter, nearly the last paragraph.
The second book just narrowly missed being one of my five Hugo nominations this year, but Miracles is very high on my list for next year, and the trilogy will be a sure bet if "Best Series" is a special award again as it is this year. As many books as I already have to read, and as many new ones that I anticipate, I also re-read select titles. This series goes into the repeat category.
Bennett's official website
SF Signal interviews Bennett
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