City of Blades, by Robert Jackson Bennett
Posted January 21, 2016on:
Published January 2016
where I got it: Received ARC from the publisher (thanks Broadway Books!)
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Two asides, by method of introduction:
Robert Jackson Bennett knows how to make a damn good sandwich.
I find mythology tragic, yet addictive. It’s like a scab I can’t stop picking at, a trainwreck I can’t look away from. The more we tell these beloved and culturally powerful stories, the more we trap their inhabitants. One of my favorite examples of this is Loki (Fenrir is another). He is trapped in his destiny, he can’t make other choices or do other things, even if he wanted to. And every time his story is told, the shackles get tighter. As storytellers, we need him to be a particular archetype, we need him to act a certain way, to be a certain lever of the world as we know it. Because otherwise, the myth wouldn’t have the desired effect.
Mythologies are cultural artifacts of incalculable value, and as we gain strength and inspiration from their telling we enslave the characters within the myth, because we know how the story has to end.
Confused yet? Excellent. Let’s talk about City of Blades.
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City of Blades is both a very easy book to talk about, and yet a very difficult one. It easily falls into my favorite category of books, those “that aren’t what they say they are about”, which makes it very easy to talk about without spoiling important plot bits. However, it is hard to talk about, because there are intimacies and honesties in this book that as a reader, I feel I have been trusted with. I do not want to betray that trust by mis-speaking about someone’s experiences. I just realized I am treating Bennett’s characters as if they are real people. I talk about not wanting to betray someone’s trust, yet that someone is a fictional character, whose life and secrets are available to anyone who wishes to turn the pages of her life. You know what? I like thinking about Turyin Mulaghesh as a real person. It’s a comfort, to give that kind of weight to her life, and to the lives of the other characters in the book.
Both this new novel, and it’s predecessor City of Stairs, reminded me a little of Cordwainer Smith – as in both Smith and Bennett flat out refuse to follow any of the expected and so-called “rules” of the genre in which they are writing. Both authors write as if there simply are no rules or conventions, as if no one ever took them aside and said “you know you’re not supposed to present this type of story this way, right?”. With City of Blades, Bennett takes it one step further and joins Seth Dickinson in dragging an eraser through the genre, erasing the so called rules and conventions.
For those of you who are suddenly asking “who is this Robert Jackson Bennett guy, and why do I care that he knows how to make a fucking sandwich?”, here’s the gist of City of Blades:
At the end of City of Stairs, a very exhausted General Turyin Mulaghesh retires, in hopes of being very much left alone. Pulled back into active duty, she finds herself on the farthest edges of the frontier, forced into a secret mission in the ancient metropolis of Voortyashtan, a city that is experiencing a sort of renaissance. Meanwhile, a political agent has gone missing, a strange resource is discovered, a family is found murdered, and Mulaghesh yet again wonders what the hell she did to deserve ending up here.
She’s got nothing else to do with her time but learn how to think like a spy, so she might as well start asking questions. What’s even worse, is that at the edge of the world Mulaghesh finds she’s just too damn tired to run from her past. Although City of Blades is a direct sequel to City of Stairs, if this it your first time hearing about this series, you can probably read the books out of order and do just fine. The two books take place in the same world, but feature different characters and different cities.
The world of City of Stairs and City of Blades is one where the supernatural and miraculous is not only dead, but has become illegal by the ruling powers. Neglected by the Gods and historically abused by the Continentals, now that the Saypuris are in power, they impose their Worldly Regulations on the Continent: Nothing miraculous, supernatural or unexplainable, ever, forever. Miraculous objects that still work are hidden away in bunkers, never to be touched by those they were created for. Part of Mulaghesh’s mission is to determine if the new mineral found in the mines of Vootyashtan is miraculous. If it is found to be miraculous, heads will roll (and not to mention the miles of red tape and forms that will need to be filled out, in triplicate). If it isn’t found to be miraculous, Mulaghesh may have an even bigger problem on her hands. As a veteran of the war that brought Saypur to power, Mulaghesh has seen it all. But even she is shocked at the racist terms she hears her peers use towards the locals.
A lot of reviewers talk about Bennett’s world-builing. Many reviewers focus on how his characters leap off the page, how you can see the consequences of their decisions in every line on their faces. Some reviewers will choose to focus on the plots of both books, that touch on religion, racism, power, and how history is written by the winners. The best thing, is that Bennett excels at all of this – amazing characters, stunning worldbuilding, and complex plots that focus on both the large scale political consequences and also very personal moments.
If you want, City of Blades is a mystery. You could easily categorize it as a military fantasy and /or political thriller that takes sharp jabs at today’s fear driven political atmosphere. You could also categorize it as some kind of epic fantasy with no good guys, some kind of afterlife / mythology / secret society type story. God help me in choosing a favorite book of the year if Robert Jackson Bennett and Seth Dickinson ever publish books in the same year.
You’d be correct in thinking that City of Blades is a damn good book.
But there’s an even larger reason why this book will make so many “Best of the Year” lists this year:
City of Blades is an unflinchingly honest and audaciously intimate look at the long term consequences of war, power, peer pressure, PTSD, and how veterans are treated upon their return from warfare. Mulaghesh has been conditioned not to, and frankly isn’t allowed to talk about her past, where she was involved in a military action that her government refuses to admit ever happened. Shackled by the memories, enslaved by assumptions, she has no idea how to psychologically process her justifications.
Early in the novel, and this isn’t a spoiler, Mulaghesh receives a message the gist of which is “make it matter”. There are so many interpretations of that phrase. Mulaghesh interpreted it in a certain way, but I ended up interpreting it in a much larger way. For me, that tiny phrase transcended the paper and ink, it jolted right through the plot of a fantasy novel. I am a civilian. My knowledge of the military comes from TV and movies, and I rarely like what I see. What I mostly see on my TV screen is senseless violence and weapons without responsibility. I am guilty of making gross assumptions, of not knowing how to ask soldiers what they do, of not wanting to know. And in my ignorance and uncomfortableness, I shy away from asking. I shy away from caring, I shy away from making it matter. Mulaghesh forgave me for my ignorance, my uncomfortableness, my shying away. She showed me what soldiers go through, what being “in the service” means. In her one-way conversation with me, she gave me something precious, something I don’t think anyone else could have given me. (Now do you see why I acted so strangely protective of her trust earlier in this review?)
I still don’t know how to ask. I may still shy away, or be awkward, or never be brave enough to ask. But I want what soldiers do to matter. I want to know that they are like Mulaghesh. Instead of seeing myself in her, I want to see her in other people.
Veterans Day just became very important to me. Mulaghesh made it matter, and because of her, I want to be part of making it matter.
To circle way back to the beginning, what I get out of the sandwich is more important than how Robert Jackson Bennett makes the sandwich, and City of Blades takes those chains of mythology and every so gently destroys them.