This is Bennett’s follow-up to last year’s City of Stairs, a story of espionage and warfare in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world. What sets these books apart from so many others is the apocalypse happened due to the death of the Divinities, gods who ruled over reality, shaping and warping it to their desires. City of Blades follows one of its predecessor’s heroes, General Turyin Mulaghesh, on a covert operation into the heart of the Continent’s violent past.
At turns funny, heart-breaking, violent, and suspenseful Bennett has crafted a worthy successor to City of Stairs. The world remains a lived-in, well-realized subcreation with its own believable history and technological progression, that is, in some ways, still reeling from the Battle of Bulikov. Fans will be glad to know that Sigrud graces these pages with all the strength we have come to know him for, but he is given a more nuanced portrayal that fleshes out his character beyond that of the quiet, intelligent thug we know and love. Turyin is foul-mouthed as ever, combining utter competency with an unswerving allegiance to the truth and to those she believes it is her duty to serve. Her back story is both terrible and wonderful as we see how she became the strong, admirable woman she is in these stories.
Though I have never served in the military, and I don’t know that Bennett has either, it seems to me that he has captured the essence of warfare brilliantly—the act of killing as muscle-memory, the detachment necessary to maintain any semblance of sanity, the duty and service that can make death and destruction matter, and the deep belief that there has to be a better way. To continue along this path of slaughter and mayhem is unacceptable in a world that aspires to civility and freedom, but at the same time it is the sad reality of a world where cultures and values are in constant conflict, where it is not just lives that are at stake, but afterlives as well.
I love that this story takes divinity seriously. Bennett has imagined a world where gods are very real and by being gods, their power is nearly unlimited. They seem to be as petty and greedy as the pantheons of ancient mythologies, but with more power. While having human characteristics like the Greek gods did, the Divinities better approximate the realities inherent in the idea of divinity. Unlimited power balanced with the responsibility of freely entered contracts (it reminds me of the Biblical idea of covenant—with some obvious differences of course—in that both parties make an agreement and while humanity can only do its best to abide by the terms the divinity cannot help but abide by them because it is not in the nature of divinity to do otherwise). And that is one of the ways in which Bennett takes divinity seriously. In the Bible, humanity cannot stick to its end of the deal. We are fallen and frail and cannot help but break faith. But God knows this, and rather than cancelling the agreement he takes up both ends to ensure it is kept. If humanity cannot hold fast to the terms, then God will become man and hold fast for them.
There is no One God in the Divine Cities, and the gods there are bear little resemblance to the God of the Bible. But they do bear some. They provide little glimmers of God’s true character hidden behind fiction and invention. And the human characters offer other glimmers from different angles. We can follow those glimmers if we choose, follow them outside the pages of City of Blades, follow them to their source. And when we do we’ll see the face of the God who walked this earth, but not like the Divinities. He walked as a servant, a teacher, a prophet, a sacrifice. He came not to rule or dominate, but to heal and redeem. In him we see the fullness of deity as it really is. And it is beautiful.