Paul Di Filippo reviews Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett (Penguin Random House/Broadway 978-0-553-41973-3, $16, 464pp, trade paperback) May 2017

Locus Magazine, Science Fiction FantasyWhen I reviewed Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs for Asimov’s a few years back, I said, in part:

City of Stairs is remarkably fresh and fun and well done, reminiscent of the work of Paul Park in The Starbridge Chronicles and Daniel Abraham in The Long Price Quartet. Bennett’s fifth novel is a shining example of New Weird which proves that the youthful genre has legs beyond any immediate faddishness, when executed with ingenuity and skill…. Bennett tells a thrilling, formidable story which exhibits the perfect ratio of naturalism to the fantastic, of action to philosophy, of characterization to setting, of humor to tragedy.”

I was unable immediately to enjoy the sequel, City of Blades. But now that the third, concluding book, City of Miracles, is here, I think it’s time to catch up.

To recap Bennett’s worldbuilding setup first, in a very compact nutshell. Once upon a time, the land dubbed simply the Continent was alive with actual deities–the Divinities–whose efforts had created a fairyland of cities and culture for the human inhabitants. But the deities were all killed by invaders, and with their deaths the physical structures they had raised and the systems of trade and governance and worship all collapsed, leaving behind a wasteland of ruins for the Continental citizens. Thereupon the remote nation of Saypur came in and took control, and have now ruled for seventy-five years. Their ultimate goal is to rebuild the place and make it a functional colony. Of course, there is much resistance from the natives.

Diving into the second book, we see that Bennett has taken an admirable tack: rather than simply continue the adventures of main characters Shara and Sigrud, as detailed in the first volume, he has jumped ahead in time and shifted the spotlight to a different protagonist, another player from City of Stairs, General Turyin Mulaghesh. The book opens in archetypical fashion: gunfighter called back into action. Mulaghesh, having retired from the military, is now living a hermit’s existence. But Shara, currently prime minister of Saypur, needs her friend back in action, and so Mulaghesh reluctantly complies. She is sent to the city of Voortyashtan, once the domain of the goddess Voortya, ostensibly to investigate a strange new substance with economic potential that has been found there. Upon her arrival, Mulaghesh finds an old comrade, General Biswal, in charge. Immediately she is plunged into various conspiracies and disasters. What she discovers is that the ancient City of Blades, a kind of supernatural Valhalla full of Voortya’s warriors, is about to be reawakened, plunging the world again into war. Many sacrifices are made to thwart the plot, and many surprise reveals of who the bad actors actually are occur.

This second book continues Bennett’s deft and deep exploration of the various corners of his subcreation, which rings as real as our world. Lots of exotic cultural tidbits with an organic feel. And his characterization moves are equally fine, with Mulaghesh vibrating off the page.

True to his vector, Bennett shifts the focus laterally again in this conclusion to the trilogy. He has placed, center-stage, Sigrud Harkvaldson, who has been present since the first book. Implacable killing machine-cum-espionage agent and bodyguard and loyal giant samurai to his worshipped Shara Komayd. He was a standout feature of both first and second books, and now dominates even more intensely.

We open with a harrowing set-piece, as a professional assassin named Khadse stalks then murders Shara, who, some twenty years after the events of City of Stairs, has attained political power, then abandoned power, and is now embarked on a private and mysterious program/quest of her own. Meanwhile, in a distant lumber camp, Sigrud has estivated without much joie de vivre, just existing, after the traumatic events of Book Two in which his beloved daughter Signe was killed. Learning of the murder of his old partner Shara, he powers back up into full spy tradecraft mode and sets out to track down her killer.

We get another great and absorbing and stimulating setpiece as Sigrud homes in on Khadse and takes him down violently, not without costs to himself. From the man he learns of the mysterious patron named Nokov who ordered the hit, and who is intent on killing a host of other figures. But Nokov is more than a mere human–he is in fact a half-Divine creature with amazing powers and a sociopathic, megalomaniacal worldview. And Nokov has in his sights Taty Komayd, Shara’s adopted teenage daughter, who has gone missing upon her mother’s death.

The rest of the book is a hurdle across many venues, a cat-and- mouse game in which Sigrud and his allies have to stay one step ahead of Nokov to frustrate his plans for world domination. Finished pretty much with any fresh worldbuilding–that activity was executed sufficiently in the first two books–Bennett can now use his well-established venues and cultures as stagesets for incredible action. The long surreal aerial battle in Chapter 10 is just one of the many pulse-pounding intervals in this headlong chase.

But Bennett certainly does not neglect the fantastical elements of his tale, which are integral to the action. There are lots of fresh novums unloaded here, such as the time-manipulation powers of another hybrid figure. Moreover, Bennett uncorks the secret backstory that has been lurking below all the previous events. He ties up all the loose threads and truly satisfies with the world-shaking climax and upbeat aftermath. The fact that the pivotal events take place in Bulikov, the City of Stairs, adds a nice circular resonance to the trilogy.

And Bennett does not stint on new characters, the brightest and most vibrant of whom are all women. Besides Taty, we get Malwina, the half-Divine prodigy with the chronal powers; Ivanya, Taty’s brash millionaire godmother; and on the evil side, Kasvitha Mishra, human ally to Nokov. Their fresh presence is pivotal and colorful.

Ultimately, the arc of Sigrud life’s is boldly completed, and his understanding of himself and the world form the true prize in his long hard quest.

What Bennett had delivered here is something along the lines of Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE: a brainy political thriller with non-mimetic trappings, an unnatural engine at its heart. For Stephenson, it was cyberspace and virtual reality that constituted the frosting on the action-packed plot. For Bennett, it’s the New Weird of his various Cities and the occult workings at the foundation of his subcreation. Both writers managed to fuse their two disparate realms into a brilliant hybrid form, proving that unprecedented miracles can still occur in a dusty old world.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

One thought on “Paul Di Filippo reviews Robert Jackson Bennett

  • May 18, 2017 at 4:44 am

    For me, magic and science don’t mix. In a comic story, the incongruity can be productive of humor. But for me I finished City of Stairs thinking the real story was that the Divinities of the Continent weren’t slain by science, but by rebel Divinities using the science people as pawns, because magic always trumps science. That’s what makes fantasizing about magic so satisfying, no? And I just finished City of Blades, with the conviction there’s no way science can really work in this universe, there’s no way the science people won on their own and there’s no way new Divinities aren’t going to win. And moreover, there not really any thematic clarity from Bennett on why this would be a bad thing. The real thrust of City of Blades is moral condemnation of war, even as it purports to ennoble the heroine for accepting the tragedy of war. The moral exaltation of service works every bit as well for service to Divinities as service to…well, actually Bennett’s not clear on that. He may have been sort of thinking of the Saypuri conquest of the Continent as imperialist war, but that really validates the Divinities, doesn’t it?


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