With City of Blades, Robert Jackson Bennett fully embraces the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Blades exemplifying all that was beloved about City of Stairs : the same espionage-like narrative, similar weaving of fantastical elements with straight ahead mystery, and philosophical overtones, but adding to it a new setting, a unique mythos, and a very personal journey for the main character. All of these things perfectly meshing into yet another amazing story in this series.
Naturally, as our tale begins, years have passed since Shara Komayd faced down the last remaining Continental Divinities in the city of Bulikov, uncovered a horrible truth about Saypuri’s savior, then used her newfound knowledge to blackmail her way back to her home country to begin her ascent to political power. But Blades isn’t about Shara. Our main character is the now retired Turyin Mulagesh.
This tough-as-nails soldier’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed since the unfortunate incident in Bulikov. First, a rising wave of promotions followed Bulikov, one which finally crested upon Mulagesh’s posting as general upon the powerful Saypuri military council. But once there, she very suddenly and very mysteriously retired. Now, she resides upon a small out-of-the-way island, eking out a rather humble life on her military pension and fighting with her neighbors. It might not be glamorous or politically exciting, but it is all that Mulagesh has or desires to have.
Then things change. Suddenly. The arrival of an emissary from Prime Minister Shara Komayd bringing bad news.
Through an unfortunate bureaucratic bookkeeping error, Mulagesh doesn’t have her required number of years to justify her government pension. A circumstance which will cause her monies to be cut. All of which means she will no longer be able to afford to be retired and pay for her home.
But the crafty Shara has a proposition for her old friend: complete an undercover operation on the continent and the problems with the pension will go away.
What choice does Mulagesh have? None, honestly. And without knowing exactly what is expected of her, our one-armed general agrees to be aboard a naval vessel on a date certain, where Shara herself will give her the mission details.
And Shara does . . . well, in a way. A recorded message à laMission Impossible confronts Mulagesh upon her arrival onboard; one which sends her to the continental hellhole of Voortyashtan (The place you only get assigned to if “you sleep with or kill the wrong person.”) to investigate the disappearance of a Saypuri operative. Her secondary task to complete the ongoing undercover operation into whether a super conductive material in the hills nearby is a geological miracle or a remnant of the Divine!
This fairly simple sounding mission soon morphs into a life changing journey for Mulagesh. First, she has to confront the backward and barbaric city of the ancient goddess of war: Voortyashtan, the floating port of the Divine (which now lies more underwater than above it), where Saypurians are hated even more than in Bulikov. And, once there, she is reacquainted with her old military commander, General Biswal, whose reintroduction into our retired general’s life brings back horrible memories of a war and her own actions in it that she would sooner forget. But the most horrible of all, she is immersed in her races’ ancient hatred and fear of the Sentinels, the followers of the goddess of war, who meted out unspeakable slaughter upon Saypuri for generations and who might not be as dead as everyone believed they were!
What is truly outstanding about City of Blades is the meshing of fantasy and mystery themes. Obviously, City of Stairs did this extraordinarily well, but I personally wondered if Mr. Bennett could catch lightning in a bottle twice. But he has. And he has made it look easy. The fantasy world and the magic in Blades playing a pivotal yet complementary role to the mesmerizing questions and sleuthing that Mulagesh undertakes. Every action and clue uncovered by her steeped in fantastical trappings but so modern in tone that Blades reads like a new genre altogether. It really is amazing to once again sample this new fantasy flavor which Mr. Bennett has quickly made his own.
But the modern tone is exactly what some readers might find a bit off-putting in this story. While City of Stairs was cut from a similar narrative cloth, the divine nature of the city of Bulikov, the missing gods, ancient relics, and general fantastical feel of every narrative twist and mysterious discovery kept that story firmly grounded on the fantasy side of the ledger. Blades is a bit different. Definitely, the “divine” is still central to the plot; relics play their part; the Continental Divinities are touched upon; but this book spends a great deal of time dealing with warfare induced post-traumatic stress syndrome, confronts the issue of what exactly is unforgivable in war, delves into questions of familial love,and even dabbles a bit with the proper way to treat one’s former slave masters. All of these plot elements very well constructed and enjoyable. However, they are very modern issues. Issues most readers read and see in the news every day and listen to pundits debate ad nauseum. And whether they wish to explore them again in a fantasy will definitely be a personal decision only they can make.
All in all, I found City of Blades to be a satisfying sequel to City of Stairs. Mr. Bennett crafting an intriguing mystery set in his remarkable post-Divinity world; a place where the people use modern technology like guns and telephones, but are still constantly confronted by vestiges of the more supernatural past when real gods walked the world and “magical” swords, wielded by divine warriors, ruled it. Mulagesh’s personal journey of discovery and espionage is never dull; new clues and problems arising at seemingly every turn, causing both her and the reader to agonize over who and what is the cause of all the mysterious goings-on. All leading up to a rousing conclusion which provides enough twists and turns as well as emotional outcomes to end this fantasy mystery on a exhilarating and thoughtful note.
I received this book from Broadway Books and Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank both of them for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.