Book Review: City of Blades (The Divine Cities #2), Robert Jackson Bennett (2016)

February 5th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A Satisfying Follow-Up to City of Stairs

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for attempted rape.)

People often ask me what I see when I look at the world. My answer is simple, and true. Possibilities. I see possibilities. —letter from Vallaicha Thinadeshi, 1649

More boos and catcalls. Mulaghesh thins her eyes as she watches the tribal leaders. They are all skinny, haggard things, dressed in robes and furs, their necks brightly tattooed and covered with curious patterns. 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.

Five years have passed since the Battle of Bulikov, and its heroes are all scattered around the globe. Former ministry agent Shara Komayd now runs the whole damn thing – but her progressive, pro-Continent policies have proven unpopular in Saypur, and it’s unlikely that her stint as Prime Minister will endure long enough for Shara to see them through. Meanwhile, Shara’s muscle Sigrud has reconnected with his estranged family, helped to found the new democracy The United Dreyling States … and been nudged into political office by his wife, Hild. (“Chancellor” is a safer occupation than “pirate hunter” or “assassin” – or so one would think.)

As for General Turyin Mulaghesh, she’s done what Sigrud can only dream of: disavowed herself of politics altogether. After Bulikov, Mulaghesh was promoted to vice-chairman of the Saypuri Military Council: a promotion that did not sit well with this soldier. Haunted by her past and frustrated by a bureaucratic post that prevented her from actively atoning for her sins, Mulaghesh abruptly retired to the resort island of Javrat. Now she spends her days drinking, scrapping with the locals, and being an all-around curmudgeon.

Until the day PM Komayd pulls her back in, that is.

About a year ago, a strange ore was discovered near Fort Thinadeshi. Located in Voortyashtan – the province of the late Divinity Voortya, Goddess of War, Death, and Destruction – this area of the Continent is considered the most backward and savage of them all. The ore, named thinadeskite after the fort’s namesake, Vallaicha Thinadeshi, has remarkable properties: it’s an excellent conductor of electricity, and even seems to amplify it. This should be impossible: energy cannot be created from the ether, and the only ones able to bend natural laws – i.e., the Divinities – are all dead or disappeared. Voortya was the first to fall to under the Kaj, and her death is such a done deal that the fallout is considered a textbook example of the fate that awaits a Divinity’s miracles when said Divinity ceases to exist. (Poof!)

Concerned by the implications, Shara dispatched a Ministry agent, Sumitra Choudhry, to investigate. That was eight months ago. Shortly after arriving, Sumitra began to exhibit strange and erratic behavior: wandering the cliffs at night, talking to herself, drawing horrific doodles on her bedroom walls. Three months later, she vanished without a trace.

Now it’s up to Mulaghesh to find her – and uncover the true nature of the thinadeskite. All while navigating a volatile political landscape: as part of Shara’s initiative, the Southern Dreyling Company is hard at work building a port in Voortyashtan, which promises to bring wealth and (hopefully) peace and independence to the region. But not everyone is happy about the project, which involves dredging the sacred remains of old Voortyashtan from the Solda River and threatens to displace some tribes at the expense of others. Further complicating matters is the command at Fort Thinadeshi: General Lalith Biswal, under whom Mulaghesh served, dishonorably, decades before. “By all the hells,” as Mulaghesh would say.

I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of City of Stairs, and absolutely fell in love with it: the complex world building, the flawed yet courageous characters, the diverse cast. At the time, I assumed it was a standalone novel. I mean, it sure felt that way: self-contained, with a satisfying resolution. So I was surprised and not a little skeptical when the ARC of the sequel, City of Blades, made the rounds. I just couldn’t picture a path beyond Stairs. Then again, I’m not a writer.

Bennett laid all my doubts to rest with City of Blades – and within the first few pages, to boot. Though Shara only appears briefly, she sucks Mulaghesh – and by extension, us – back into her world: one rife with mystery, intrigue, and impossibilities. A common complaint with Stairs was the exposition – pages upon pages of it. (Which, spoiler alert, was kind of my favorite part.) Blades, on the other hand, is action-packed, filled with blood and gore and monstrosities that should not exist. Voortya makes for a terribly compelling Divinity; I especially love the story of how she courted Ahanas, the Goddess of Growth, to form an afterlife (that would be the titular City of Blades) for her warriors. Millions upon millions of them, who threaten to tear through the fabric of reality in search of their final, apocalyptic war.

It was also a pleasure to watch the old team get back together. We learn more about Mulaghesh and Sigrud’s backstory, adding to our understanding of them as people and not just warriors. I never quite understood why Sigrud emerged as a fan favorite in the first book – Shara and Mulaghesh stole the show, imho – but after the sequel, I’m a believer. We even get to meet Sigrud’s daughter Signe, now grown and head of the Southern Dreyling Company. (That’s right! A mini-Sigrud!)

As with Stairs, Blades is wonderfully diverse and progressive: there are many characters of color in the form of the Saypuris, not to mention the FF star-crossed romance that forms the origin story of the City of Blades – heaven, or rather the closest thing the Voortyashtanis have to it. (Heaven as the love child of two Goddesses? Imagine that!)

And then there’s the delicious little scene wherein Sigrud, spying on his sketchy-acting daughter, discovers Signe cavorting with a Saypuri soldier:

Sigrud thinks about it. “I do not care.” “You what?” “I do not care about espionage, about decorum, about security. I worried my daughter had only work in her life, only success or miserable failure. To see her smile in such a manner makes my heart glad.”

A father who’s totally down with his daughter’s sexuality? More please!

Additionally, Mulaghesh struggles with alcoholism and PTSD (war is hell, and Bennett doesn’t let us forget it) and is missing her left hand, which she lost in the battle of Bulikov. Like Peeta in The Hunger Games, Mulaghesh’s missing limb is portrayed as a handicap – but not an insurmountable one. She experiences phantom limb pain, has trouble performing certain tasks single-handed, and struggles with an inadequate prosthetic. Yet she still manages to save the whole damn world.

As in Stairs, the protagonists here are all flawed and fallible. Human. In Mulaghesh and Biswal we see two conflicting versions of what a soldier can be: servant or conqueror. Someone who gives or takes. Savior or killer. While Mulaghesh’s ideals win out, however briefly, Shara’s own political troubles back home throw humanity’s future into question.

I really struggled with the rating for Blades. My favorite part of Stairs was the joy of discovery: learning about this new world, its history and rules, rivalries and contradictions. Since the framework’s already been established, the sense of wonder I felt in Stairs is a little less present here. Even so, it’s an enjoyable novel, and a worthy successor to City of Stairs. The ending and author’s note both hint at more books to come, and this time I eagerly await the sequels. I can’t wait to see what Mulaghesh, Sigrud, and Shara get up to next.

4.5 stars, reluctantly rounded down to 4 where necessary. (It’s 2016, people! Half-stars, get with the program!)

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! This ‘verse features three nations of people: The Saypuris are generally short of stature and have brown skin. For many years, they were subjugated by the Continentals (with so small amount of help from their Divinities), who have light skin and red hair. Last but not least there are the Dreylings, who are quite Nordic in appearance. Though the story takes place on the Continent, it’s under occupation by Saypur, so the cast is quite diverse. Shara Komayd, General Turyin Mulaghesh, General Lalith Biswal, and the rest of the military is Saypuri.

Many of the soldiers, including MC General Turyin Mulaghesh, are suffering from PTSD in varying degrees. Mulaghesh also struggles with alcoholism and is missing her left hand, which she lost in the battle of Bulikov. Like Peeta in The Hunger Games, Mulaghesh’s missing limb is portrayed as a handicap – but not an insurmountable one. She experiences phantom limb pain, has trouble performing certain tasks one-handed, and struggles with an inadequate prosthetic. Yet she still manages to save the whole damn world.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a

 

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