City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett is the sequel to City of Stairs. In many ways, it continues the original story of war, colonialism, repression, history, and not-quite-so-dead gods. But this time, Bennett dives deeper into the personal costs of war and how memories and scars of killing, victories, and defeat never truly heal, as well as how the drive for forgiveness and revenge can keep the cycle of violence continuing long after the ceasefire is signed. This is another fantastic book by Bennett in what is one of the more unique, layered, and surprising fantasy series going today.
When City of Blades begins, we find that the protagonist of City of Stairs, Shara Komayd, has become Prime Minister, but her time may be running short as the opposition party grows. So she guilt trips newly resigned, now former General Turyin Mulaghesh to visit a hotspot, Voortyashtan, to solve the mystery of a Saypuri who went missing. Like I said, there are details here that will remind you of the previous book. But don’t let that dissuade you from reading City of Blades. A new country, a new focus, and new dangers make for an engaging read. But the manner in which Bennett presents them, gives them an emotional resonance and eye-opening significance makes this book stand out.
No surprise having read City of Stairs, Bennett’s world building excels again here. Just as Bulikov, a city broken by the death of its gods, was a fully rendered, so too is Voortyashtan. It’s a complex, fractured island whose tribes were once devoted to a goddess of war, destruction, and death. Now the island’s inhabitants must deal not only with the consequences stemming from the death of that goddess, but also with a Saypuri fortress in their midst and the Dreylings building a port and establishing a facility that looks to linger long after the construction contracts are fulfilled.
Naturally, the locals aren’t happy, so they are launching attacks on the Saypuri fort and personnel. And while danger and violence threaten to boil over, Mulaghesh must also get to the bottom of a newly discovered substance that seems to show divine properties even if it doesn’t strictly register as divine when tested. But the Voortyashtani goddess is definitely dead. Everyone knows the story. So are the tests wrong? Or is this a new god? Or something new, something that survives a divine death? Mulaghesh will have to act quickly if she is going to answer these questions before war (or worse) breaks out.
As enjoyable a character as Mulaghesh was in City of Stairs, Bennett really elevates her in this book, showing how the General became the gruff, feared, respected person she is today. I won’t get into spoilers, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading Mulaghesh’s backstory. Which isn’t to say it’s light and funny. No. It’s marked by a horrific experience early in her career. One that she has forever tried to recover from, one that leaves her wondering if she has another fight left in her.
And I want to pause here to commend Bennett for creating an older woman as his protagonist. It’s a rare thing in fantasy (but check out A Crown for Cold Silver if you want another good, recent example). Oh, and Signe, the lead Dreyling engineer, also has to be highlighted as another one of Bennet’s wonderful characters. She’s young, ambitious, and hungry–and an excellent contrast to the older, more jaded Mulaghesh.
Although this book checks many of the boxes of epic fantasy–rival countries, wars, rebellion, a magical power that could destroy the world–City of Blades is a very personal story, spending a lot of time inside Mulaghesh’s head and focusing on memories, shame, regret, growth, forgiveness. About how the baggage of our past can weigh us down unless we find a way to deal with it. And so I think Bennett has done something wonderful with this book. It’s not an epic fantasy that you put down after reading it. It’s a book that forces you to confront deeper issues, uncomfortable issues, and really consider how you think about them.
Like I said earlier, this is a fantastic book. It’s a must-read.