City of Miracles: A perfect close to one of the best trilogies in recent memory

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City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett epic fantasy book reviewsCity of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett epic fantasy book reviewsBill: I think it’s going to be impossible to review City of Miracles (2017) without reference to events from Robert Jackson Bennett’s first two books in the series (City of Stairs, City of Blades). or without discussing the major precipitating event (no real pangs of guilt here; that event is also detailed in the official bookseller summary), so consider this your fair warning: There be spoilers ahead!

Bennett picks up the story years after the close of book two, with Sigrud off in lumberjack country, haunted by the past and waiting desperately to be called back to his old life as agent-assassin by his friend and partner, the former Prime Minister Shara Komayd. When news of Shara does arrive though, it’s a shocker: she’s dead, assassinated in a hotel bomb blast. Surprising nobody who has read this series, Sigrud vows to find and kill those responsible, turning his finely honed skills and often surprising ability to survive the un-survivable toward delivering vengeance/justice (the distinction doesn’t much matter to him). To that end he’ll meet up with a favorite character from the earlier books, Turyin Mulaghesh; Shara’s adopted teen daughter, Tatyana; and survivalist-slash-“world’s richest woman” Ivanya Restroyka. Along the way he also discovers (again to no one’s surprise) that Shara was involved in some weighty secrets involving this world’s gods, secrets that may threaten not just their nation, but also the world entire.

So before we get into the detailed look at the book itself, since it is the concluding work of the series, I just wanted to start off with an observation that I think this trilogy as a whole stands as one of the best crafted series of the past several years if not decade(s). I can think of a handful of series I’d put alongside it, but I’m pretty sure (without actually trying to tabulate it), that I’d put it in my Top Ten from 2010-onward list for its combination of characterization, prose, thoughtfulness, thematic depth and seriousness, and its powerful emotionality. So I was wondering: where does THE DIVINE CITIES stand amongst its contemporaries in your own view?

City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett epic fantasy book reviewsMarion: I think THE DIVINE CITIES is one of the most important works of this decade. Bennett takes on deep, complex, thorny issues, but these aren’t books whose story is secondary to a message. He has created a genuine world and works out the issues through complicated, original stories with characters who are appealing, complex, flawed and who often show different facets of themselves to different people. Shara, for example, seems different in each book, yet she is a congruent character. People see different sides of her; a fact that Sigrud realizes in City of Miracles.

City of Stairs (The Divine Cities) Paperback – September 9, 2014 by Robert Jackson Bennett

Book 1

City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett epic fantasy book reviewsKate: I agree with Marion and Bill. One of the aspects of THE DIVINE CITIES that strikes me is Bennett’s worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is a concept we talk a lot about in SFF, and often worldbuilding just elicits a “Wow! Cool!” response from readers. There is a lot in THE DIVINE CITIES that is cool, certainly, but the history Bennett has invented for his world — a history of cultural violence, oppression, and war — has real-world significance and meaning. The characters in these books are dealing with the fallout of colonialism, which is something we can see the effects of worldwide. For me, that’s one aspect that raises these books from “Wow! Cool!” to truly important.

Bill: Yes, City of Blades was, as we all noted in our review of that book, a searing indictment of war and its impact, and City of Miracles continues that exploration, and resumes, as you say, a running commentary on the effects of colonialism — both on the colonized and the colonizer. As Marion points out, though, Bennett doesn’t allow message to outweigh story or character, since beyond taking on “big issues,” Bennett examines as well the impact of sharply personal grief/sorrow, asking for instance in the case of Sigrud: what happens when that grief becomes all-encompassing?

Kate: Reading what happens to Sigrud in this book, the way he deals with the tragedy of his life, really affected me. I think it’s good that Sigrud’s was the third story told. All three major characters — Shara, Turyin, and Sigrud — are mysterious characters, people with secrets. But Sigrud seems defined by his secrets, by his drifting, rootless nature, more than the others. With two books behind me, I have more invested in him now, which made uncovering his scars (literal and metaphorical) all the more satisfying

Marion: Yes, quite apart from the complex story and the feats of daring — like on the sky-tram! — the things that linger are the depths of Sigrud’s grief and remorse and Bennett’s exploration of the way a society exploits its children (more on that later). Sigrud has been defined by his loss and grief, and reading this book made me think back to City of Stairs, where Sigrud confronts an entity that threatens to unleash torment upon him — only it can’t, because it can’t beat the emotional torment he already endures. I love how the first two books did make Sigrud’s losses seem like a “strength” for we readers as well, only to upend that idea here and offer a real critique of the impact of grief. Is this nearly every comic book/pop culture male hero who loses his parents/wife/lover/wife & child and is driven to violent extremes because he “has nothing to lose?” Bennett puts that under the microscope.

City of Blades (The Divine Cities) Paperback – January 26, 2016 by Robert Jackson Bennett

Book 2

Bill: Yeah, just consider that punch-in-the-gut line, “You have made a weapon of your sorrow.” That pretty much sums up, as you say Marion, nearly every pop culture male hero. But is that really an honorable response to grief and sorrow? Not to mention that the world would be full of an awful lot of murderous vengeance-seeking people if, as one character notes, we’re all “little more than walking patchworks of trauma, all stitched together.” Should we all make a weapon of that trauma? I think Bennett makes his view on that pretty clear through the acts and dialog in this novel.

Kate: “Making a weapon of trauma” is carried through in the arc of several characters over the series, and very literally in the arc of the new antagonist, a child (of sorts). It is heartbreaking to see all of the main adult characters sacrifice parts of themselves and co-opt their own pain in order to survive, and I think Bennett is saying something about the legacy of trauma when he shows that it gets passed down to children as well.

Marion: Which gets back to the other point I wanted to make about how I think the way a society treats children is central to this book and the series. In City of Miracles we see people, human and superhuman, using children to meet their own needs, causing them pain, and going so far as to weaponize them. That’s part of why one character’s choice at the end is so satisfying.

Bill: Yes, as one character asks, “How many times has one person performed an unspeakable atrocity, all in the name of making the world better?” In that regard it reminds me a bit of Steven Erikson’s MALAZAN series, which often takes the treatment of children as its theme as well. But Bennett doesn’t simply go for the easy sympathy by depicting children being horribly treated. He forces us into more discomfiting territory by showing us those same mistreated children (some of them) doing horrible things as a consequence of their own mistreatment, depicting “a loop, an endless loop of injured children, growing old but keeping their pain fresh and new, causing yet more injury and starting the whole cycle over again.” It’s certainly not a stretch to argue that perhaps the primary question facing humanity is whether or not we will ever break that cycle.

Kate: This is what I love about these books, and why I will keep coming back to them! They don’t tell a story about a simple, easy victory where the heroes walk away relatively unscathed — or even where it’s easy to separate hero from villain. Almost every “bad guy” in these books has a backstory, a reason for their actions, and most of those reasons point back to structures of power. The system — whether religious, governmental, or economic — are the real bad guys, the real seeds of chaos and violence that the characters end up acting out.

Marion: And that sense of those systems is what makes one character’s choice interesting at the end. There is a seesaw of consolidated power versus, I guess I’d say, “distributed power.” Ironically, once that choice is made, one government immediately sets up a bureaucracy to deal with the “new reality.” I loved that. Can you really make lasting changes in centuries-old, deeply entrenched political systems? These stories seem to be saying that it is individuals who change, not regimes, if I’m reading them correctly.

Bill: That’s a good question. I wonder if the idea is that the bureaucracies and governments and regimes sort of all pull us along in a particular direction due to a kind of aggregate weight of effaced-humanity (the “mob” or the “faceless bureaucracy”) or inertia, and the on-going corrective to that is individual change, which can allow things to sputter forward in awkward, painful starts and stops.

Marion: As far as individuals go, we meet two young women in this book, Shara’s daughter Tatyana and a woman named Malwina. They represent the new generation. They are very different people, and I liked them both. Malwina is more self-confident and street-smart, but Taty is a strong person too, in a different way. Bennett also introduces a Continental woman named Ivanya, a former socialite from Bulikov who is fabulously wealthy and has become radicalized. I liked her but I thought she was the least-developed character in the book, her change in consciousness explained in one or two sentences. Admittedly, it’s not her story, but I found her a little convenient. What do you two think?

Bill: The two young women are different, and I quite liked both their portrayal and the eventual understanding we come to as to how/why they’re different from one another. Taty I thought showed the most growth; she’s strong, as you say, but I think we see her grow into that strength, whereas Malwina is a bit more fully sprung from the brow, so to speak. Another way of putting it perhaps is that Malwina has more the typical fight-the-villain struggle role while Taty’s struggle is more emotional and interior, dealing for instance with grief, thanks to the death of her mother, and dealing as well with revelations about the people she thought she knew (including herself). As for Ivanya, I’d agree she’s not very well developed, and often serves as a nice bit of plot engine, but I so enjoyed her voice and personality I was more than happy to overlook that aspect.

Marion: I agree that Taty shows the most growth here, and it’s believable.

Kate: Honestly, just from a fan-service-y point of view, I was happy Bennett created Ivanya because of the connection she and Sigrud share. Although no one’s arc in these books ends in a neat or pat way, it was nice to see Sigrud get to experience more positive human connection — with Ivanya and with Taty — after he’s lost almost everyone important in his life.

Marion: When we started writing this review I asked you both if a certain character’s choice, at the end, reminded you of the final episode of the TV version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To recap (spoiler alert for the 20-year-old TV show), Buffy was a Chosen One, “One girl in each generation,” awakened to fight evil and, ultimately, die fighting it. The Slayer was merely a resource for people in power. In the series conclusion, Buffy “awakens” all the potential Slayers, giving them their own lives and own destinies. In City of Miracles, we see that Shara’s Aunt Vinya had no compunctions about treating people as resources and political tools, and, while Shara can be ruthless, this is one key difference between her and her aunt.

Bill: Without going into too much detail so as to avoid spoilers (for the new book, not the old TV series), I did think of Buffy at the near-end there, and as with Buffy it was both a bit of a surprise (though I think more in execution than even) and also had a sense of inevitability, which I always think is a mark of good writing. It’s interesting that in Buffy that power structure that uses/abuses the Slayers is clearly, I’d say, meant as a criticism of the patriarchy system, while here we have two women that could be charged with a similar attitude (though I agree Shara is subtly different, one reason being her willingness to accept bearing the consequences of her acts). Which perhaps both highlights that the issue is power and hierarchy and is also a mark of progress that the women can be shown in that same light once reserved for the malevolent male power bloc.

Kate: I’m glad you brought that up, because I definitely see Shara as complicit in the system. Her motives are arguably better than Vinya’s, and we can see that she loves the people around her in a way we weren’t sure of with Vinya. Still, it was hard to like Shara as much as I did, knowing that she would sacrifice people she loved. Since we’re comparing SFF franchises here, sometimes I felt about Shara the way I felt about Dumbledore from the HARRY POTTER series — this well-meaning person, fighting on the side of “the good,” who nevertheless keeps secrets and uses people as pawns.

Bill: Good connection. And while we’re on the end here, I’ll just note that I thought Bennett nailed it, a perfectly bittersweet close.

Marion: I agree. It was a perfect ending.

Kate: Yeah. I had to close the book and take a moment — or three — just to process. It was beautiful.

Bill: I think the last thing I’d like to mention is that while I love this book and this series on the macro level for its superior depth of characterization, the richness of its worldbuilding, and its willingness to wrestle with big ideas/issues even as it tells compelling personal stories (“wrenching” is a word I’d often use in that regard), I don’t want to just gloss over the craft at the micro level — the sentence level. There are many beautiful lines, and lots of others that work as sharply powerful aphorisms, short on words but substantive enough for you to sink in for some time. So I wanted to point to just a few of my favorite ones:

  • What puzzles the dead are. They take so much of themselves with them, you’re not even sure who you’re mourning.

  • Passionate is the love that a nation has for its prisons.

  • The awful choices we make to survive. Is it even worth it?

  • We float upon a sea of moments. And never are we truly free of them.

  • The past and future never seem to acknowledge one another, do they?

So if you’ve been waiting to check out thoughts on the completed DIVINE CITIES trilogy before diving in, clearly we’re all huge fans and can’t recommend jumping in as fast as you can (but then taking your time to savor it all). And if you’ve already started, well, you didn’t need us to tell you to keep going, did you?

Published May 2, 2017. Revenge. It’s something Sigrud je Harkvaldsson is very, very good at. Maybe the only thing. So when he learns that his oldest friend and ally, former Prime Minister Shara Komayd, has been assassinated, he knows exactly what to do—and that no mortal force can stop him from meting out the suffering Shara’s killers deserve. Yet as Sigrud pursues his quarry with his customary terrifying efficiency, he begins to fear that this battle is an unwinnable one. Because discovering the truth behind Shara’s death will require him to take up arms in a secret, decades-long war, face down an angry young god, and unravel the last mysteries of Bulikov, the city of miracles itself. And—perhaps most daunting of all—finally face the truth about his own cursed existence.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who’s been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the “Notable Essays” section of Best American Essays. His children’s work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he’s not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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9 comments

  1. I have GOT to read these. I have the first two on audio and was waiting for the trilogy to end. Five stars from all three of you is amazing!

  2. Bill, you did an awesome job of pulling our thoughts together and creating a coherent statement here. Thanks!

    Reading it, I don’t think I stressed ENOUGH that the book, like the others, is also filled with imaginative magic, adventure and action, and snappy banter.

  3. Yes, there is now absolutely no excuse for me to not fast track this series way up the TBR list, even if the other books near the top protest after waiting patiently for decades!

  4. I read the first two books based on the reviews here, and I started listening to this book last week. I only listen a little bit a day, so I’ll be enjoying this book slowly, really letting it sink in. My only regret, I guess, is not having waited until this came out to read all three. I have forgotten parts of the first two books and know that as a result I am missing some layers in my reading.

    Since I’m new to reading SFF series, I have a question: What do you do when you spend so many years between books in all the series that you all read? How do you refresh your memory? Are there sites that provide fairly decent plot summaries of the first two books? I couldn’t find any. I know everything would come rushing back if I could just read a plot outline.

    Or do most of you find that all the information you needed comes back automatically as you read the new volume? Am I unusual here?

    • Sometimes I re-read. (I often reread anyway, so I may have jut read an earlier book again by coincidence.) Sometimes places like wikipedia give summaries and often you can find columns on the author’s website that talk about plot points.

      I also reread reviews on our site because the first reviewer almost always includes a high-level summary.

    • Hey Brad,
      It’s all dependent on how long the series is, how long ago I read it, how much I enjoyed it, how much I remember, how long those earlier books are, and what’s going on in my life at the time. Sometimes I don’t reread at all but just look up my old review (s) as a refresher if needed. If I didn’t review it I’ll look first on our site and then elsewhere if needed. If I love the series, then I’ll usually reread. if not every time, every other book (i.e. I won’t reread book one if I’m starting book two, but I might reread books one and two before starting book three). I’ll only reread entire series if I really love them–I’ve done that with the Malazan series, the Expanse, the first few books of Wheel of Time, the first four or so books of Game of Thrones (but he was taking so long I decided I’d just stop reading the series until he was done) A few others.

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