Review: City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett

From time to time people express concern about the extent to which series, sequels and trilogies dominate science-fiction and fantasy. There is something to be said for the standalone novel and also something to be said for those novels that could have been standalone but instead generated a series of diminishing quality, such as Dune. Yet in genres that invest in world building the trilogy/series can really reward the reader. By giving the author an opportunity to develop a setting that is well thought out and in which change is possible, we all gain richer pictures of new worlds and other realities. It also means that balance between backstory and character development can be accomplished without neglecting the plot.

City of Miracles is a shining example of a brilliant use of the trilogy format to tell fantastical stories. The third book in a series that follows City of Stairs and City of Blades, Bennett again shifts point-of-view character, this time to Sigurd – the almost impossibly bad-ass fighting machine side-kick of spy/politician Shara Komayd (whose career is traced through all three books but who was the specific focus of the first).

Each of the novels has leaped forward several years in the post-fantastical history of the Saypuri Republic and the formerly magical and imperialistic Continent. In doing so Bennett gets to show a world that is undergoing its own version of industrialization and 19th-century European-colonial hegemony without using a cookie-cutter. The political divides are rich enough to feel real and complex and the bad is given at least equal prominence with the bad.

The central conflict of all three books centres on remnants of the former powers of the (largely) now dead divine being of the continent against the industrial/colonial/military power of Saypuri – a nation that in the more magical past was a source of slaves. Bennett neither romanticizes the magical world that has passed nor valorises the industrial world that is now dominant. Instead the ethical centre of the book sits with the fate of ordinary people caught up in the conflicts between not just incompatible world views but expressions of changes and might.

In City of Miracles time has apparently affected everything but Sigurd. Looking younger than his years, Sigurd is in hiding after his vengeful acts in City of Blades. But an assassination brings him back into the world of espionage. Saypuri is now more like an early twentieth century nation, cars, trains, automatic weapons are now more common place. The Continent has also changed with navigable rivers, new train lines and other more remarkable forms of transport. Yet with those changes has come new forms of poverty and deprivation as well discontent among some Saypuri.

Combining elements of fantasy and espionage, a mystery and an appalling new danger to everyone is slowly uncovered. Some of the twists are easily guessed but others are more unexpected. The action sequences are very well done but it is Sigurd’s personal struggles with guilt and regret that give the story a compassionate heart. The combined whole feels inventive and original and while it has elements in common with steam-punk, heroic fantasy, urban fantasy and espionage genres, those elements combine in a seamless and cohesive whole.

I raced through this story in a few hours. It was compelling and exciting and just really well executed. Substantially less bound to a single location than the previous novels, there is a relentless pace to the story that manages to be both different from and similar to the earlier books in almost perfect ratio.

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4 comments

  1. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 10/19/17 Don’t Know Much About Psycho-History, Don’t Know What A Slide Rule Is | File 770
  2. Acoustic Rob

    It’s a great series, and the world building is excellent. And, I cackled with glee when we find out what Mulaghesh ends up getting herself into.

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