City of Blades (The Divine Cities)
by Robert Jackson Bennett
Review by Sam Lubell
Broadway Books Kindle Edition ISBN/ITEM#: B00TCI29Q4
Date: 26 January 2016
City of Blades is the second book in The Divine Cities series. The first book, City of Stairs, was a fun novel with a young, clever spy protagonist. City of Blades is a much more serious book that is more literary in its focus on the internal struggles of its damaged protagonist. Readers could probably read this book without first reading City of Stairs, as this book features a different main character and setting.
General Turyin Mulaghesh has retired after the events in the first book (in which she was a supporting character). Not only is she missing a hand from her last battle, she is suffering from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (although that term is never used) and from memories of the Summer of Black Rivers, when, trapped behind enemy lines, her unit violated the rules of war by attacking civilian farmers and even killing its own soldiers when they questioned this strategy. But she responds when Shara, now prime minister, calls her back for one last mission on the Continent.
While pretending to be traveling on the touring shuffle to fill out her required time in service to collect a full pension, Turyin will investigate a newly discovered metal that conducts electricity without losing power. Shara fears this is a divine manifestation, evidence that one of the old gods is not as dead as everyone believes. Turyin is also supposed to find out what happened to the previous investigator.
The military governor of the city of Voortyshtan is Turyin's former commander during the Summer of Black Rivers. General Biswal believes he did the right thing then and despises Shara's reforms that require the military to treat the people of the Continent with dignity. Turyin's investigation is further complicated when an old comrade in arms, the killing machine Sigrud, comes to visit his estranged daughter who is constructing a harbor at Voortyshtan. Ultimately Turyin gets involved in local politics, mysterious ritual killings, hidden artifacts, magical swords, and a scheme to fulfill the last promises of the goddess of war, death, and the sea.
The setting is especially well-done. This is a fantasy world where gunpowder weapons are beginning to be put in use (swords are still common) and yet telephones and recorded messages exist. There is full female equality, even in the military. The city of Voortyshtan, "armpit of the world", is the least desirable military outpost, where "you get shipped to only if you sleep with or kill the wrong person". The surrounding countryside is even worse. This is very much a colony where the natives hate the occupying forces and the soldiers of the colonial power despise the natives.
It is very unusual for a fantasy novel to feature an older woman as the lead character. There are some--Bujold did it with Paladin of Souls, Pratchett with the Granny Weatherwax books, LeGuin with Tehanu. But these are far outnumbered by the legions of young adult and early 20s heroines. Turyin's age and past are crucial to City of Blades. The book would not have worked with a less experienced character. Even her physical damage plays a crucial role. Although Turyin is a general, a military leader, she has grown to recognize that war should be a last resort as violence kills people on both sides.
Some readers may be put off by the slow pace of the book, especially at first. Much of what matters takes place in Turyin's head and how her past and mental state affect her investigations. For most of the book gods and divine power are merely part of history. Fans of Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence will feel right at home as Bennett plays with similar themes of humans no longer needing gods (and even being imperiled by them). Readers who like interesting characters, especially those who can appreciate a depressed and haunted character, will find City of Blades intriguing reading.