City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett
|Book Name:||City of Blades|
|Author:||Robert Jackson Bennett|
|Publisher(s):||Jo Fletcher Books|
|Formatt:||Paperback / Ebook|
|Genre(s):||Fantasy / Science Fiction / Steampunk|
|Release Date:||January 2016|
The first question I expect you to ask about City of Blades is: ‘Does it live up to the Locus, World Fantasy, British Fantasy and GoodReads Choice Award nominated City of Stairs?’ Well, that’s a good question, my friends… Allow me to answer it with an emphatic YES and quickly follow it up with the promise that it truly is even better!
Very quickly the author fills in the events that have occurred since the end of City of Stairs. The protagonist of that first book, Shara Komayd, has risen to the heights of Prime Minister. We hear that during the early days of her reign, General Turyin Mulaghesh was by her side and helped to convey Shara’s message of the need for a more united world to the military council. They seem to have made some good progress, but those days are behind her now. The opposing party’s shouts about Shara not being strong enough to lead Saypuri are beginning to get through. As a result, Shara seems weary and with General Turyin Mulaghesh mysteriously retiring to some obscure island somewhere and Sigrud off acting as a Prince to his people, Shara’s reign looks like it could be coming to an end.
Surprisingly though, that’s not the story City of Blades will be pursuing. Instead, readers initially finds themselves following Pitry, a member of the Prime Minister’s Personal Staff, who arrives on the island that Mulaghesh has retired to. After a run in with the locals, he finds her and allows us to see that “General Turyin Mulaghesh looks like shit. She’s obviously still in tremendous shape for a woman her age, but it’s been a long while since she bathed, there are rings under her eyes, and the clothes she’s been wearing are in desperate need of a wash. This is a far cry from the officer he once knew”.
For those need a reminder about Mulaghesh, she’s the kind of person you really don’t want to mess with. She is foul mouthed, hard as nails, and doggedly determined. She takes shit from no one and has no problem telling you how it is. So, it is completely understandable that Pitry is nervous as all hells because he is here to give Mulaghesh some really bad news. Pitry tells the retired General that the Prime Minister has a task for her, that she must enter back into service for a trip to the hell-hole that is Voortyashtan and investigate the disappearance of a Saypuri agent. Mulaghesh is about to send Pitry back to Shara with a message to stick her demands where the sun don’t shine when Pitry presents her with a note from Shara that reads “make it matter”. Despite Mulaghesh’s sternness, that could be mistaken for coldness, we quickly come to realise that she has an intrinsic need to protect soldiers and make sure that they are done right by, it is almost motherly. The idea that one of her own could be killed and their body not found genuinely haunts her.
Voortyashtan is an interesting place. It is the island where the goddess of death, war, and destruction chose to reside along with her sentinels. Despite the gods now having left this world, violence and death have remained entwined with the island. Indeed, upon accepting the mission from Shara, Mulaghesh calculates that there is about a 1 in 3 chance she will be murdered or die of some kind of disease. Despite this, the Dreylings see worth in Voortyashtan and have come up with a way to raise a harbour and open up numerous trade channels. Whilst doing this they have also come across an interesting metal that seems to have impressive properties, possibly divine in nature. The Saypuri military is there to keep peace, but in reality the whole project is riling the local tribes who don’t take kindly to the mounted weapons and armed soldiers marching through their homeland.
A trip to a foreign land to investigate the loss of a Saypuri with possible divine occurrences in the background… sound familiar? Well, in many ways the formula of Blades is similar to that of Stairs. Yes, you’ve got our protagonist arriving on an island whose people feel suppressed and exploited, there’s an investigation into a Saypuri’s fate, and long-dead gods seeming to be not quite so dead. However, to say Blades is a replication of Stairs would be completely unfair. The themes are very different. Whereas City of Stairs tackled big global philosophical issues such as oppression, religion and colonialism, City of Blades is a bit more focused. In this book, Robert Jackson Bennett returns to a number of themes that have appeared in his earlier works: memory, significance, responsibility, worth and death. As someone who is about Robert Jackson Bennett’s age (he was born in 1984), these themes seemed to hit me particularly hard. I think that as you hit your late 20s and early 30s you begin to think about your place in the world and it was fascinating seeing the world through an older woman’s eyes and relating so closely to her anxieties. I’ve said this before, but I think all great books will leave you a slightly changed person or with a slightly different perspective on life and this is one of those books.
In addition to the more focused issues, bigger issues such as War and whether and when murder is justified do get presented to the reader. Mulaghesh, as a solider, has done some utterly terrible things and Robert Jackson Bennett uses this fact expertly to explore these issues. All the questions and explorations that the author brings to the surface are applicable to issues occurring in the world around us now. This makes parts of the book function as an interesting and important investigation into the sacrifices we ask our servicemen and servicewomen to make each and everyday. They carry huge burdens on our behalf and I appreciated, hugely, Robert Jackson Bennett forcing me to reflect upon this.
As important as the themes are, the story will challenge your ability to take your time your time reading the book. You will have an internal battle against taking your time to appreciate every sentence and tearing through the pages to find out what the heck is going on and who is responsible for all the shady things that seem to be occurring. Yes, just like City of Blades, the story is full of twists and turns, fantastical elements and interesting characters. Other than Mulaghesh who raises the question “why are almost all fantasy heroes young males?” my favourite character was the daughter of Sigrud, Signe. Signe is a more stereotypical ‘warrior woman’ type character than Shara or Mulaghesh, but she won’t leave you rolling your eyes as she has plenty of layers (she certainly doesn’t appear in a chainmail bikini). Signe is a master at engineering, she is physically strong, seemingly cold-hearted, and is responsible for keeping the whole harbour project on track. She has potential to be Mulaghesh’s closest ally or her biggest hindrance. The complex relationship these two have is really interesting. You have a brilliant soldier in the early part of her career who thinks that she knows everything, then you have a brilliant solider whose career is seemingly over who has learned that it is impossible to know everything. Each can learn from each other and help one another realise their ambitions on Voortyashtan, but both are stubborn and not used to listening to foreigners with retired/lower status.
I’ve found this book hugely difficult to review. There are so many layers to Robert Jackson Bennett’s work that I feel revealing too many elements of City of Blades or trying to point readers towards what I think the author wants them to see will lessen the experience. The power of Robert Jackson Bennett’s work is that you inevitably leave it with renewed views, having been encouraged to consider difficult questions. It’s quite a book that can leave you a different person by the end of it. In my opinion, Robert Jackson Bennett is one of the most talented authors writing in SFF today and this is his finest work to date.