Tuesday, January 19, 2016

City of Blades - Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Blades is the sequel to Robert Jackson Bennett’s critically acclaimed City of Stairs. I reviewed City of Stairs at the end of last year, and have to say it thoroughly deserved all of the praise that it received. That meant I went into City of Blades with high expectations – and honestly, I think they were met.

This time, we’re off to another city on the same Continent as before. Where the City of Stairs was a broken mess of confusion and a hotbed of insurrection, the new locale has a different feel. The shattered remnants of a port city, most of which was sustained by the local divinity, and now exists under water, are being slowly brought back to health through government reconstruction efforts. This thread of rebuilding, of revivification, sits within the centre of the narrative. Because whilst the city if being rebuilt, there are always individuals who would rather turn back the clock, or rebuild to their own design.

Alongside the broken urbs , Voortyashtan also has a surrounding countryside, filled with clans more than a little hostile to occupying Saypuri forces. Bennett uses this as an opportunity to explore the tensions between the urban and the country, as well as between the governing and the governed. The broader geography also enhances the feeling of claustrophobia, as the Saypuri fort up in their…er...fort, whilst contractors begin tearing a new life into the city landscape around them. .
Mind you, the setting isn’t all that the book encompasses, but it’s a vivid, living thing. A city wracked with tensions, in a countryside with several more. The City of Blades is alive – in some cases, rather unfortunately so. It’s a convincing construction, and this world of ruined divinity and fragile humanity is a treasure.

In part, this is because of the characters it encourages. We’re reunited with the restrained violence of the taciturn General Mulaghesh for this narrative. The tone is distinct from that of the preceding volume. No less reflective, but drawn to different approaches, different modes of thinking obvious in action. Mulaghesh is given more room to grow here – the reader learns a fair bit about her past, and about the price that she’s paid, and is still paying, for the position that she occupies – and about the rights and duties that a person can impose upon themselves. Alongside the reluctant Mulaghesh are a whole swathe of new and diverting characters. I was particularly partial to her interactions with an old commanding officer – both having served in an apparently ignominious period of warfare years before the time period of the book. She’s prickly, but in some ways seeking approval and understanding, whilst he seems to have that knowledge, but is perhaps unable to use it for a purpose – a smooth talking individual with an iron-cast sense of rightness.

There are others of course.  For example, the existence of a Chief Technological Officer for the contractors restructuring Voortyashtan is a marvellous commentary on the shift in society compared to that of City of Stairs – but also gives us a view on a woman filled with focus, with resentment, with talent and drive, and with a need to see her goals fulfilled.  Bennett builds characters that aren’t just the sum of their parts, but have the sort of deep contradictions and frailties which define humanit. It makes for deeply frustrating, but absolutely compelling reading.  The descriptions Bennett uses are a startling, rich portrayal of the best and worst of humanity.

I won’t get into the plot too much, for fear of spoilers. Mulaghesh is sent to (well, strong-armed into) the City of Blades to search for a missing Saypuri operative. As is traditional, this quickly becomes more than it appears to be. Suffice it to say that Bennett packs in quite a lot of change between the pages,  and that it’s all extremely difficult to put down. There’s  some seriously high stakes in play, and the pace, once it gets going is absolutely relentless. Bennett also does a superlative job at blending the character concerns with those of the wider world, giving the reader a stake in both the epic and the personal. It works beautifully, and you’re left with marvellously believable, complex characters in a world which is both broken and evolving – with choices to be made about exactly what sort of world it will end up being.

Is it worth reading? As a stand alone, it’s a beautiful, complex book, with a lot of things to say about people, and the ways in which they treat each other, about occupation, about rebuilding, on a social and a personal level, and about the efficacy of gunfire when applied to a god.  As part of the broader sweep of the series, it’s a very worthy sequel, and one I enjoyed immensely. It’s a book not afraid to talk in subtext and implications, or to explore larger issues whilst also deploying an intriguing plot. It’s stunningly intelligent, unashamedly genuine, and a thoroughly enjoyable read. I’d say, if you’ve read the first volume in the series, you owe it to yourself to go and read this, right now. 

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