BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: General Mulaghesh finds that her retirement requires another tangle with the Godly remnants of the Continent, the site of her dark history and past.
PROS: Excellent protagonist as compared with the first novel, giving the story a fresh, new viewpoint; strong themes explored in a post-colonial landscape.
CONS: Requires reading City of Stairs to give sufficient grounding for the setting; third-person present tense is a slightly off-putting narrative voice.
BOTTOM LINE: A novel that maintains the reputation of the Divine City series.
Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs was a strong epic fantasy that explored a post-colonial environment in which the previously oppressed Saypur ended the divine power of the polities of the Continent. It was primarily concerned with what happens when an Empire comes to an end. The sequel City of Blades shows us that same world several years on. Instead of focusing on the same protagonist, Shara, the sequel point-of-view character is a secondary character from City of Stairs. Turyin Mulaghesh is one of the most unique protagonists I’ve ever come across in fantasy fiction. The one-armed, foul mouthed middle aged “I’m too old for this —-” general gets a three-dimensional portrayal in City of Blades. She’s drawn into events in the city of Voortyashtan very much against her wishes, but when she has her boots on the ground, by gum, she’s determined to see things through. Even as a seemingly small problem like a disappearance (that’s quite possibly a murder) grows in scope and danger, the narrative keeps its focus on Mulaghesh’s past and present.
While City of Stairs had its protagonist Shara nearly upstaged by secondary characters like Mulaghesh, in this novel, Mulaghesh stands heads and shoulders above the other players. Even the appearance of characters like Signe, and even more so, Signe’s father Sigrud (yep, he’s back!) cannot hold a candle to Mulaghesh. This is very much her story. Even though there are strong epic themes at play, in some ways this is a more personal story. Having a character whose past is so intimately tied to her present gives the story a strong narrative weight.
City of Blades moves beyond the post-colonial theme of City of Stairs and focuses on the nature of war. Mulaghesh’s past, and how it shaped and even crippled her, are explored in unflinching detail. The novel has important things to say, and thus throttles back the humor of the previous novel. City of Blades is distinctly darker in tone, but I think the exploration is important and well-handled. It’s not grimdark in the sense of portraying a grey, uncaring world; it’s a world where grey and uncaring events happen and the consequences have wide-ranging repercussions.
The narrative — almost to a fault — counts on the reader having read City of Stairs for the cosmology, world building and basic political setup for the Divine Cities universe. Without reading the first novel, readers may not have a lot of context for the importance of the Divinities, now gone, or the full details of the political history of the continent. City of Blades just provides more information and details, but it assumes the reader already has a a basic knowledge of how the world works. This does limit the audience, but it does make this novel a must-read for readers of the first volume who, like this reviewer, were left wanting to know much more about the world. I also think Voortyashtan as a setting is neither as iconic nor singularly interesting as the locale of Bulikov was in the first novel.
It’s too early in the year to officially say so, but City of Blades is already something for me to consider among the best novels of 2016. It would take an extraordinary year of powerful novels for this book not to be counted amongst their number. Readers new to the world should proceed to pick up City of Stairs; returning readers will likely need no coaxing to dive into this one.