Review: Divine Cities 1 & 2 (City of Stairs, City of Blades)

I did some clambering up mount-to-be-read and read Robert Jackson Bennet’s City of Stairs and then City of Blades back to back.

Neither book has the same depth as N.K.Jemisin’s Broken Earth books (Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate) but they share an interest in building a secondary world fantasy that is inhabited by people from societies best described as ‘modern’. By ‘modern’ I don’t mean contemporary to our own but rather societies that are urban, governed (for good and bad), and having a scientific/material/technological outlook.

Having said they lack the same depth that doesn’t mean that either book lacks depth. Bennet creates a complex and plausible (given the required suspension of disbelief around the fantasy elements) set of societies and a history that looks at colonisation and cultural hegemony.

Also, there are some excellent giant monster fighting sequences in both books – so if the term ‘cultural hegemony’ is disturbing you then note the Dolph Lungerenesque nordic barbarian warrior fighting a tentacled eldritch city-eating eldritch horror in City of Stairs and the can-we-kill-a-magic-sword-wielding-divine-warrior-with-a-Gatling-gun sequence in City of Blades.

At the start of City of Stairs we are introduced to what may seem like a familiar situation. An ancient city occupied by a modern empire that is ruthlessly suppressing all traces of the traditional religion. But as we progress quickly into the book we learn the suppression is not just an empire exerting control (although it is that as well) but also that the colonisers were once the colonised and the religions that were suppressed were once very, very real. While in 19th century colonial Europe Nietzche wrote about the death of God, the people of Saypuri literally rose up and waged war on the gods of the continent.

The death of the reality altering divines is the backdrop to the trilogy (the third novel, City of Miracles, is not yet released). The existence of these divine beings acts rather like a Cthulu mythos for a secondary world fantasy or not wholly unlike a backstory for an urban fantasy. The world the central characters live in is late 19th-century industrial (trains, firearms) but also one in which magic has not entirely gone from the world.

Bennet does an excellent job of making these tensions between nations complex and multi-faceted. The Saypuri occupation of the continent is shown to be brutal and insensitive but, at the same time part of a long history of violence and exploitation between nations.

The plot structures for both books head off in yet another direction – murder mysteries slash spy thrillers with a noir-ish compliment of morally ambiguous protagonists: the ambitious, cynical and yet humanistic spy Shara Komayd, her extraordinarily violent bodyguard Sigurd and the war-weary military officer Turyin Mulaghesh (a woman haunted by her actions as a young Saypuri soldier during the wars on the continent).

Violent, and intriguing the books avoid simple heroes but still centre on heroics. Thoroughly enjoyed both and look forward to City of Miracles.

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10 comments

  1. Mark

    If I was to make a criticism it would be that Bennett seems a little in love with his own world building at the expense of making it clear. It’s a minor quibble though – it’s all fascinating stuff and the question of the oppressed turning oppressors has lots of potential.

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    • camestrosfelapton

      The geography is also very sketchy and I would have liked a clearer sense of the historical sequence of events but maybe that was just due to an initial misunderstanding I had. At first in City of Stairs, I’d just sort of assumed the gods were killed many hundreds of years ago (don’t know why I thought that) and then I got a bit confused about when stuff had happened.

      Also, while very different stories and worlds there is a lot in common with some of the back story in Sorcerer of the Wildeeps.

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      • Ken J

        I delighted in a re-read after figuring out who the six Divinities, and their characteristics, had been. I appreciated all the little set-ups so much more. The first time through, the Divinities were just alien names and I kinda blew past them.

        Unlike Camestros, I didn’t feel I ever had a problem keeping the back-chronology in order: the successful revolt against the gods was 75-80 years ago before the main story starts. But I needed the reread to fully understand the tangle of (SPOILER) which led to the murder of Dr. Pangui. (No spoiler there, his death is announced in the opening scene.)

        I’m going to speculate that “City of Miracles” will focus on Ahanas (the life force? and the subject of the Worldly Regulations trial at the opening of the series) and Talvaras (the builder god), because those are the two gods remaining whose stories have not been told in detail.

        I’m a slow reader with a busy life, and I read a lot less than most fans now. And, I was away from SF books between roughly 1990 and 2014. But, for my limited experience, the Divine Cities books are just a notch below the Imperial Radch books as the best I’ve read since I came back. (I’ve been too scared to tackle the Jemisin. Not sure I can take that much grimness right now.) Some other commenter pointed out that the Radch series is written in a noir voice (especially “Ancillary Justice”), so maybe that’s something I find very appealing.

        Curiously, I find that I experience the Divine Cities books more as SF than as fantasy. Maybe that’s because I have a pretty serious prejudice against fantasy. šŸ™‚

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      • JJ

        Ken J: Curiously, I find that I experience the Divine Cities books more as SF than as fantasy.

        I’ve just re-read Stairs and then read Blades. I’m just getting ready to start Miracles.

        I keep expecting the author to whip out the reveal that the Divinities are actually aliens from another planet, and that their “magic” is really based on alien technology.

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      • camestrosfelapton

        In Blades, I anticipated a certain plot-relevant substance to be a computing device storing individual minds. It wasn’t but that it felt like the story might head that way suggests that I’m reading it as SF rather than F.

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