End Date: April 30th
Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Pages: 484 (paperback)
Selected By: Elle Tea
“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?” – from the Goodreads summary.
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.
“‘I have trudged through fire and death to come and ask you this: Can we not be better? Can we not do better? Are we so complacent in our comfortable lives that we can no longer even dream of hope, true hope – not simply for Saypur, but for humanity itself? Our ancestors were legends who remade the world. Are we willing to be so small-minded with our brief time upon these shores?'”
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!
“O, the things we kill for our dreams, forgetting all the while we shall wake up to find them naught but dust and ash! What fools we are to pretend that when we walk to war we do not bring our loved ones with us. If I had known the grief I’d bring upon myself, I would have been a toymaker instead.”
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.
“Some are women, she sees, which surprises her: Bulikov strictly forbade women from doing anything more than firing out children as quickly and efficiently as possible. But then, she thinks, Voortya probably wouldn’t have tolerated that bullshit.”
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.
“‘We are beautiful, strange creatures of heat and noise, of sudden, inscrutable impulses, of savage passions. Yet when we consider our own existence, we think ourselves calm, composed, rational, in control… All the while forgetting that we are at the mercy of these rebellious, hidden systems – and the elements, of course. And when the elements have their way, and the tiny fire within us flickers out, what then? A blast of silence, probably, and no more.'”
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.
“‘Time is a river, and we are but blades of grass floating upon its waves. To fear the end of the river is to fear being on it at all. And though we may look ahead and see countless forks, when we look back we see only one way things could have ever gone. All is inevitable. To argue with fate is to argue with a river.'”
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 tumbling out of 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.
“Chains are forged of many strange metals. Poverty is one. Fear, another. Ritual and custom are yet more. All actions are forms of slavery, methods of forcing people to do what they deeply wish not to do.”
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.
“‘Your rulers and their propaganda have sold you this watered-down conceit of war, of a warrior yoked to the whims of civilization. Yet for all their self-professed civility, your rulers will gladly spend a soldier’s life to better aid their posturing, to keep the cost of a crude good low. They will send the children of others off to die and only think upon it later to grandly and loudly memorialize them, lauding their great sacrifice. Civilization is but the adoption of this cowardly method of murder.'”
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?
“The world may not go on forever. But that does not mean we cannot try to make tomorrow better.”
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.
“‘There’s no such thing as a good death, Lalith. It’s just a dull, stupid thing we all have to do eventually. To ask meaning of it is to ask meaning of a shadow.'”
I can almost hear you now: “So if it was so great, why’d you give CoB four cups rather than a five-cup rating?!” 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 another five-cup rating (perfectly perfect and loved everything about it). By 40%, I had tumbled down to three cups (liked it), because I felt it was slowing down rather than picking up. But by 80% I had rapidly shot back up to a five-cup score and held firmly at that rating through the end. While writing this review, I opted to split the difference and go with a four; it might not be entirely fair – I did end on a perfectly-perfect note, after all – but it most accurately reflects how I felt about the book as a whole.
“‘People often ask me what I see when I look at the world. My answer is simple, and true. Possibilities. I see possibilities.'”
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.
“‘Ah, there’s that word.’ She looks out at the ocean. ‘Deserve. How preoccupied we are with that. With what we should have, with what we are owed. I wonder if any word has ever caused more heartache.'”
Elle’s Favorite Character(s): General Turyin Mulaghesh, for being a badass femme of the over-50 variety. I initially quite liked Rada Smolisk, as she made some very good points during a conversation with Mulaghesh, but she lost me by the end of the book. And Sigrud FTW, as always!
Elle read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.
This sequel to City of Stairs was not a disappointment. Unlike its predecessor, the main theme of this novel is war, and I really enjoyed following and learning about Mulaghesh. I like that she doesn’t enjoy killing people, and she believes that the purpose of her job as a soldier is to serve others – she wants to protect her fellow soldiers and do what is best for both them and her country.
“She knows such youth is far behind her, but she has always felt that to foster is, protect it, and watch it grow is still a fine thing.”
This book shows you the different aspects of war – how it affects citizens, how it affects growth in the countries involved, how differently people respond and cope with the same situation. There is one quote that touched me more than any other out of this book, because, sadly, I think it applies far too often today:
“Dying has gotten a whole lot easier all over the world.”
Besides Mulaghesh, another repeat customer from the last novel is Sigrud. We get to see a different side of him, and even though it was pretty brief in the concept of things, I really liked it. We are introduced to one of his family members who evolves into a pivotal and fabulous character within this story, as well. Mulaghesh and Sigrud have a bit of a wedge driven between them during the happenings of City of Blades, and at one point Mulaghesh states that she isn’t sure she can forgive him – they’d been through so much together across both books that by the time this moment struck, I couldn’t help but be disappointed in her for feeling this way, and she lost a bit of respect from me overall for being so black-and-white about everything.
“Life is but a prelude to death. Other worlds await. Live your life and choose your path knowing this secret.”
I also thought the new character Rada had great insight, and I liked her initially, though she did disappoint me by the end. One of my favorite things about this unfinished trilogy is that the author gives such depth to his characters, and they each have so many layers to them – they really just step out of those pages for me and morph into real people.
“But paranoia usually doesn’t harm, and often helps.”
The story itself is in no way predictable, and it frequently took a twist or sharply turned in a direction that I was in no way prepared for. It’s definitely not a happy-endings-for-everyone kind of series, but I really enjoy that about these books: nothing is perfect, and no one is safe… but that’s life, and you just keep going along and trying your hardest and hoping for the best.
“If I leave anything behind in this world, I hope it is my work. I hope the streets I helped pave and the water I helped pump and the stone I helped carve speak not my name, but the name of innovation, the name of progress, the name of hope.”
I definitely recommend this book to others, and I can’t wait for the next installment to be released!
“I don’t know if I’m ever going to wear a uniform again, she thinks, watching the soldiers, but I will still fight for you.”
BillMo’s Favorite Character(s): Pitry & Sigrud. Pitry because he’s diplomatic and so very particular; Sigrud because… well… he’s Sigrud. Sigrud = awesome. I’ve always liked him – sure, he’s rough around the edges, and he may take some questionable actions at times… but he gets shit done, son!
BillMo read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.
I was excited to read the second installment of this series. What I couldn’t tell you is whether I was so tired all the time that I couldn’t get through more than two or three pages at a time before drifting off to sleep or if the story did not intrigue me. By the end, I am still ambivalent toward the story itself; however, there are things I truly appreciate what Bennett portrays.
One of the major themes in this novel is transitioning. The most poignant being that of Mulaghesh from a vital soldier to an old war horse being put out to pasture. When we first find Mulaghesh, she is flailing so badly, that she is a slovenly, belligerent drunk attempting to lick her wounds. While she is dealing with a self-imposed expulsion from Bulikov, Mulaghesh is still feeling very much the lost soul as she cannot devote herself fully to her calling due to her injuries suffered in the Battle of Bulikov. I was quite pleased with Mr. Bennett’s ability to take us into the mind of an old war dog who has to come to terms with a future that doesn’t involve the service in the capacity that they have spent most of their life honing. Mulaghesh’s life centered around her service since her early teens. She served in time of war and committed atrocities because she followed and believed that was the only way to shorten the war and to assist her fellow soldiers. Mulaghesh was offered an opportunity, in her youth, to begin to redeem herself for actions taken that seemed logical and preemptive at the time, which in hindsight could prove to be nothing more than war crimes. While she buries it deep, these decisions she made while a young lieutenant, she’s carried the guilt and trauma with her all these years, and they are manifesting as she faces her retirement.
Like so many soldiers, Mulaghesh suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While she seemingly holds her life together rather well, in her impending retirement, it is evident that she is spiraling down. Bennett does an excellent job in illustrating how one who is so entrenched in a life style can fall into depression when they are faced with not being able to do anything other than soldier. I think this is true and is played out beautifully in the book as many of us have witnessed it in reality as well. There are times where she fights against the overwhelming feeling of loss and despair at the actions she performed and where she is currently. If she could take back the atrocities she committed on the Yellow March, she would have done so in a heartbeat.
In contrast to Mulaghesh, we are introduced to her commanding officer when she was a young soldier in Biswal. Where Mulaghesh was afforded the opportunity to redeem herself, Biswal was not so lucky. It appears that he was shunned, as he should have been as a ranking officer who instigated a campaign of terror on civilians. His arrogance is not stamped when confronted by the upper echelons of his actions and there is no remorse shown. It is no wonder her becomes a pariah in the military circles. His career does not endure as well as Mulaghesh, probably because she did not actively seek glory, but acted out of duty and a desire to protect. It is evident by the end of the novel that Biswal’s ego is so rampant that he has learned nothing in all his years of service. He lies, manipulates and shows absolutely no regard for human life. His behavior, is quite frankly, what people who do not approve of the military believe of them, that they are vainglorious, warmongers who enjoy combat for the sake of it. Undoubtedly, Bennett did a great job because all I could do was despise his character.
Now my chief complaint about Mulaghesh this time around is that she is so single-minded that she doesn’t do a great job of analyzing the entire picture. While she belabors the point that she isn’t a ministry operative, some things don’t require training but common sense. Elle and I agree there is a scene that grated on my nerves so badly that I would have loved to put my hands through the pages and ring her neck and that specifically had to do with Sigrud.
I was pleased to be introduced to Sigrud’s daughter. Where she was brilliant, determined and a force to be reckoned with, she is still a lost little girl, wishing to earn her father’s love and respect though she seems to resent him. However, my true bright spot was Sigrud. We did get to see his vulnerability in attempting to bridge the gap with his daughter and then his straight forward approach to problem solving was uniquely Sigrud’s. In truth, there was not enough Sigrud in this novel.
I look forward to the next installment because it is about Sigrud, otherwise, I may have given up on this series with this rendition. It is beautifully written. However, the story did not capture me as the first did. It was masterfully told, and even I, who am a military buff and huge supporter of our military personnel, was still just a bit ambivalent about where we were headed throughout the course of the novel. With that being said, I teetered between a three and four. However, the strength of his PTSD development and progression in life from a vital career man/woman to someone who ultimately feels impotent was excellent and raised it to the score it rated from me.
Esbe’s Favorite Character(s): Sigrud.
Lady Esbe read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.