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.