Sunday, September 8, 2019

Review: City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett
Published: Jo Fletcher Books/Broadway Books, 2016
Awards Nominated: Locus Fantasy Award

The Book:

“A generation ago, the city of Voortyashtan was the stronghold of the god of war and death, the birthplace of fearsome supernatural sentinels who killed and subjugated millions. Now, the city's god is dead. The city itself lies in ruins. And to its new military occupiers, the once-powerful capital is a wasteland of sectarian violence and bloody uprisings.
So it makes perfect sense that General Turyin Mulaghesh -- foul-mouthed hero of the battle of Bulikov, rumored war criminal, ally of an embattled Prime Minister -- has been exiled there to count down the days until she can draw her pension and be forgotten. At least, it makes the perfect cover story.
The truth is that the general has been pressed into service one last time, dispatched to investigate a discovery with the potential to change the world -- or destroy it. The trouble is that this old soldier isn't sure she's still got what it takes to be the hero.”
I didn’t really have much time to form expectations about this book, because I started it immediately after the first.  I was in an airplane, I had it on my e-reader, and the first book had been really good. There are some vague spoilers below, but I tried to keep from giving away specifics. I should also mention that this book was provided to me by Net Galley for Hugo considerations in 2018. I did read it for that purpose, though my review is considerably delayed.
My Thoughts:
City of Blades takes place a few years after City of Stairs, and it tells a standalone story. There are some recurring characters from the first book, but I think you could read them in whatever order you prefer. As in the previous book, I loved the cultural world-building and the atmospheric descriptions of place. The basic set up this time is similar, following a retired general traveling to Voortyashtan with the ulterior motive of investigating a strange disappearance.  Naturally, things are more complicated than they at first appear, and it soon becomes clear that deities might be involved somehow. The focus this time, though, is on the nature of war in general, and the effects of the specific war between Saypur and the continent. This makes for a somewhat darker book, and also one that I felt was more emotional. The brutality of Voortya’s people is still not far from the minds of Saypuri, and it is not surprising that peace there is a brittle thing.  On a more personal level, we see what war has done to the heroine, Turyin Mulaghesh.    
Mulaghesh was introduced originally in City of Stairs, but she didn’t make that much of an impression on me.  In this book, she takes center stage, and she became more compelling to me as I learned more about her.  She starts out as a particular character type, a veteran who isn’t coping well with the trauma of war and who has turned to alcohol for solace. However, she was not simply a soldier in the first war against the continent--she was an un-indicted war criminal.  The guilt that has been killing her since those days is justified. Her acceptance of her own sins also helps to keep her from romanticizing war and violence in the way that others might. I thought she made for an excellent protagonist for this kind of a story.  Fans of the first book might also be happy to hear that Sigrud plays a large supporting role, and that we do get to learn more about him. 
There’s one other thing I feel I should mention, since it happened both in City of Stairs and in City of Blades: a distressing and seemingly gratuitous character death.  There is a major side character in each book who is killed late in the story.  In both cases, this happened to a character I liked, and in both cases I didn’t see why it had to happen that way. This is more an issue of personal preference than a criticism of the book, but I thought it might be helpful to mention for other readers.  For me, it felt like a little unpleasant jab in a story where I would otherwise expect the major characters to save the day and emerge victorious. Aside from this small twinge, I found the story and the world to be as immersive and entertaining as ever.  
My Rating: 5/5
City of Blades, the follow-up to the impressive City of Stairs, tells a standalone story that is perhaps even more entertaining than the first novel.  Where the first novel focused on religion, culture, and history, this second novel focuses on war and its effects. For this purpose, rumored war criminal Mulaghesh is a natural protagonist.  Her personal story was emotional and compelling, and it matched nicely with the mystery she went to Voortyashtan to uncover. I am looking forward to seeing how the trilogy will conclude!