Bill: 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?
Marion: 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.
Kate: 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.
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?
And Stuart’s got something to say:
This series just gets better with each installment. Having listened to all three books in a row, the DIVINE CITIES trilogy deserves 5 stars for incredible world-building, complex mystery plots, and above all its damaged and conflicted characters and willingness to tackle thorny topics without sacrificing exciting and propulsive storytelling. The audiobooks are all narrated with great skill by Alma Cuervo — she captures the tone and characters of the series perfectly.
City of Miracles is centered on fan-favorite Sigrid, the Nordic berserker assassin and all-around badass, but much of the plot revolves around the secret machinations of Prime Minister Shara Komayd, who starts off the book in explosive fashion. It’s a very cinematic opening sequence worthy of Luc Besson or Michael Mann, and its alternative Eastern European urban flavor is perfectly evoked. Though Bennett adopts the same structure of a murder mystery that unfolds into a much more complex tapestry of dead gods who never fully stay dead, diabolical plots to harness divine powers for various political ends, and in this book the numerous offspring of the gods, carefully hidden away in society as mortals, often with the children themselves unaware of their heritage.
What Bennett does best, though, is refuse to let his characters stay the same. They undergo traumatic adventures that leave physical and psychological scars that DO NOT GO AWAY. It’s a direct refutation of the usual pattern of indomitable heroes who decimate their enemies, feel a twinge of remorse, and then move on to the next adventure with a jaunty swagger. Not so in THE DIVINE CITIES — Shara, Turiyan, and especially Sigrud carry the baggage of all the killings and schemes they have been involved in throughout their lives, and all the loved ones they were unable to protect from harm. Not only that, but their harrowing life journeys age them, so that we see characters that not so much grow in stature as get worn down, like weathered stones being battered by the sea, shaped by events into fantastically contorted patterns, yet still recognizable.
The themes of colonialism and its legacy remain front and center, and this time the theme of children and how they are often exploited for the purposes of adults is a key plot element, particularly as it pertains to the children of the gods and one particularly damaged godling that uses his own abusive past and takes a terrible revenge on his brethren and the world, seeking to envelop everything in everlasting darkness. He is both pathetic and terrifying, a man-child who is lashing out at those he feels wronged him.
The plot is as intricate as the previous books, and suffice to say that Bennett is adept at mixing intense action, complex intrigues, emotionally-charged relationships, and speculations on divinity, war, and oppression in a completely unique and organic way that I haven’t seen done before in the genre. That’s saying quite a lot considering how much derivative product is churned out year after year. This series deserves plenty of accolades and book sales, as the author has created something quite special and worthy of repeat readings. Though each book can stand on its own, the three form an integrated whole that is one of the most impressive works of the last decade, on par with N.K. Jemisin‘s BROKEN EARTH trilogy.