May 28, 2018
Hugo Reading 2018: City of Blades, by Robert Jackson Bennett
This is the second book in the Divine Cities trilogy (nominated for Best Series), and the author has definitely upped his game. I've heard this described as "urban fantasy," and it's not--urban fantasy usually takes place on our world, and wherever this planet is, it certainly isn't Earth (despite the presence of humans). This is a world where the gods are (or were) actual living beings, and god-inspired and -powered "miracles" co-exist uneasily with science, in the form of automobiles, fossil fuels and internal combustion engines, trains, electricity, guns, cannons, and heavy earth-moving and dredging equipment.
After the climactic battle in the first book, which resulted in the deaths of two gods, the country of Saypur is attempting to tame the Continent, its former oppressor. A major goal in this endeavor is the opening of the port of Voortyashtan, once home to Voortya, goddess of war and death. A discovery made here, and the disappearance of a Saypuri diplomat, necessitates dragging Turyin Mulaghesh, a character from the first book and a cranky fifty-something female general, out of retirement. (And may I say that the very existence of this character, let alone as the protagonist, warmed the cockles of my heart, because it's so rare.)
What begins as an irritating final tour of duty for the General quickly turns into a murder mystery and a fascinating dive into this world's history and mythology. (Among other things, the goddess Voortya created an actual afterlife for her followers, the titular City of Blades, which looms large indeed as the story advances.) But there are far deeper themes to be found here: a profound meditation on war and the price it demands of its soldiers, and what it means to be a soldier. Indeed, this latter point--what being a soldier means to Turyin Mulaghesh as opposed to what it meant to Voortya--is what the book's bloody climax hangs upon.
Along the way, the pacing and characterizations are excellent. We see mostly through Turyin Mulaghesh's eyes as she fights for her redemption. She doesn't really find it--as the book acknowledges, some things done in war can never be forgiven or forgotten, for all that they have been swept under the rug--but after the events in this book, she is awakened again to her life's purpose, which is to serve others. (And she may get the chance to do this in an entirely new way at the book's end, as the Prime Minister of Saypur, Shara Komayd, suspecting she is not long for that position, admits she is maneuvering Turyin Mulaghesh into taking up her mantle.)
This book completely avoids the dreaded Middle-Book Syndrome and is better than its predecessor, at least as far as I am concerned. If the final book sticks the landing, frankly I don't see how the series can be beat.