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REVIEW: The Divine Cities Trilogy, by Robert Jackson Bennett

The Divine Cities trilogy

Title: The Divine Cities Trilogy

Author: Robert Jackson Bennett

Genre: Paranormal & Urban Fantasy

Publisher: Random House

Pages: 1400

Reviewer: Jim

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About The Book

A special omnibus edition, collecting all three books of Robert Jackson Bennett’s acclaimed Divine Cities trilogy in a single volume. 

In a world where terrifying, capricious gods once walked the earth, enslaving and brutalizing millions, three unforgettable protagonists struggle to come to terms with the mysteries these divinities left behind— and to make sure these cruel masters do not rise again. 

In City of Stairs, an unassuming young woman named Shara Thivani arrives in Bulikov, the city that once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world. Officially, she is just another junior diplomat, dispatched by the city’s new colonial masters; unofficially, she is one of her country’s most accomplished spies, on a mission to solve a murder. As she pursues the killer, she begins to suspect that the gods who once guarded Bulikov are not as dead as they seem, and that the city’s cruel reign may begin anew. 

In City of Blades, General Turin Mulaghesh—foul-mouthed hero of the battle of Bulikov, rumored war criminal, ally of an embattled prime minister—is pressed into service one last time, investigating a terrifying discovery in the city of Voortyashtan, once the stronghold of the god of war and death. Voortyashtan’s god is most certainly dead, but something is awakening in the city. And someone is determined to make the world tremble at the city’s awful power once again. 

In City of Miracles, the formidable, seemingly unkillable Sigrud je Harkvaldsson returns from self-imposed exile on a mission of revenge, only to find himself embroiled in a battle that may be beyond even his abilities to win—a secret, decades-long war that will force him to confront the last mysteries of Bulikov, the city of miracles itself.

The Review

This review contains major spoilers for City of Stairs, City of Blades and City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett.

Much has changed in the science fiction and fantasy field since Fritz Leiber published “Adept’s Gambit” in 1939.  The pulp-magazine system has changed to a publishing field dominated by series of novels; loosely connected tales have become careful plot arcs, and visual media dominate the field through tie-ins.  Many of these changes are the results of work by the editor John W. Campbell and the writers he discovered, most notably Robert Heinlein.  But no single Heinlein character is as well-beloved as the heroes of “Adept’s Gambit”. Before his death Leiber wrote seven books[1] about the huge Northern barbarian Fafhrd and his small wizard-rogue companion, known as the Grey Mouser.  The Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game has featured the two and Samuel R. Delany added the two heroes to a Wonder Woman comic he wrote. Copycat heroes modeled on the two are common enough that the Discworld series had to take a poke at them as “Bravd and the Weasel”.  The books remain in print.  

I mention all of this because when Robert Jackson Bennet’s City of Stairs was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award in 2014, readers looked at the tiny scholar-spy Shara Komayd and her huge Northern barbarian companion, Sigrud je Harkvaldsson, and Jason Sheehan of NPR immediately dubbed the books a post-feminist take on Fafhrd and the Mouser.[2]  These heroes operate in a world whose Divinities were killed by Shara’s great-grandfather, felling the empire of the gods’ followers also.  The two heroes seek out mysteries and battle remaining monsters in the service of her now-dominant nation, a fictionalized India.  The first novel begins with the murder of Shara’s mentor amidst the dark deeds of her secret-clogged family.  Sigrud and Shara find in City of Stairsthat the city of Bulikov is haunted by gods who are neither dead, quite, nor at all what they seem.

By itself this summary (of a novel that is great fun to read!) ought to let the reader know that much more is going on here than a pastiche.  Bennett pays more attention to the plot of the trilogy and its setting than Leiber was ever able to do; pulp-magazine series could not have the plot arcs of modern fantasy trilogies.  Moreover, The Divine Cities are not a trilogy of Shara-and-Sigrud rock’em-sock’ems.  The sequel, City of Blades, uses a character from the first book, the aging General Turyin Mulaghesh, as the hero and has Sigrud appear as a secondary character; Mulaghesh resembles The Expanse’s Chrisjen Avasarala.  Shara appears solely through the magical equivalent of a Skype call.  While this book does not repeat the plot of the first one, its theme, the discovery of a lost Divine secret, is familiar.  

The third and final book brings back Sigrud as the hero, since Shara has been murdered, or has she?  And why are Divine miracles reappearing?  Sigrud wrestles with secrets he cannot understand, with his own life as the center, and his story comes to a close so as to suggest that there will not be a sequel.

What do these books tell us about the history of the genre since the Great Depression? The most important thing is plotting. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser were happy-go-lucky rogues.  Until the final book, they never settled anywhere for long.[3] The Divine Cities series deals more exactly with mousy Shara and her polar-bearish pal Sigrud.  Shara must betray a family secret and topple her aunt’s prime ministry. Sigrud loses his family twice and becomes a fugitive more than once, eventually dying after decades of pain, and Shara’s death comes at the hands of one of her own people. The plotting is finely done: a soldier loses a hand in book one and in book two, poses as an amputee goddess.  A mystery weapon is revealed in book one and then figures again in book three, and Shara’s daughter in book two becomes a major player in book three, a renewer of the world.  Bennett shows us his careful work on these books and the reader will be pleased by the results.

Another excellent aspect of this trilogy is one which is seldom questioned.  Leiber’s Lankhmar had myriad ‘gods’ each with her/his portfolio and ethnic following, and then the hellish lich-like “gods of Lankhmar”, but Leiber’s gods were more comic relief than the source of some kind of meaning. Endless fantasy series have copied the idea of a vaguely Greco-Roman-Nordic pantheon of gods each with a job, seldom if ever questioned (the Eternal Champion books by Moorcock being an almost Habakkuk-like exception).  The Divine Cities’ whole world is the result of the actions of the Gods, and the trilogy contains one of the best examinations I’ve seen in fiction of the idea of a pantheon of deities, each with a specific area of expertise and each with their own satrapy on the “Continent”.  What would happen to humans if their god grew tired of war-making and empire-building? What would a god of justice do when importuned to judge each human infraction personally?  And what would happen to the world that the Gods had made (or which had made them) when they died? This aspect of the books is extremely interesting.

What does Bennett do wrong?  As a lifelong disciple of Phil Barker and J.R.R. Tolkein’s doctrines in creating unknown worlds and new languages, I disliked the Dreylings (Sigrud’s people) being so obviously Scandinavian, while the “Continentals” were Russians, down to their names and their fruit-laced tea, and “Saypur” was a modernized, godless India.  Another problem is simply Saypur itself (Shara’s homeland).  It went from being a mob of rebellious slaves with a god-killing popgun to being an industrialized parliamentary democracy in…twenty years? Forty?  And didn’t end up being more like Haiti?  Decolonization seldom has this rosy an outcome (nor do slave revolts), but a book about Haitians killing American and French Gods with a popgun and then conquering the world…well, I’d read it, whether Nisi Shawl wrote it or not. And the Dreylings, Continentals, and Saypuri inspired a friend to remark that she’d rather them, colorful as they are, to yet more bad Tolkein-clone elves.

All in all, I can recommend these books to people who quite simply like good fantasy.  Leiber’s admirers will not find a copy of his heroes here, but new heroes in a new-old world.  Enjoy!  Because you will.

[1] An approved sequel to the series was penned after Leiber’s death but found a poor reception.

[3] In leaving them happily ‘married’ to Cil and Afreyt on Rime Isle and in giving each man a son, Leiber perhaps apologized to the duo for fifty years of rough treatment.


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