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City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett

published May 2017

where I got it: purchased new

 

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All artwork (other than the book’s cover art) in this post is by the very talented Chanh Quach. You can view the rest of her Divine Cities character portraits here.

 

This is the third book in a trilogy, and I’m a little jealous of people who will read City of Miracles as their first Divine Cities book.  How different would City of Stairs be if you already knew Sigrud’s secrets, if you already had Vinya’s backstory?  I imagine those early conversations would read much differently and have layers of subtext.

 

Picking up twenty years after the events in City of Stairs,  City of Miracles feels slower, more introspective, and less subtle than the previous installments in the trilogy.   The pace and quietness reflects Sigrud’s personality – he’s not slow by any means, but he’s self contained, doesn’t waste words, and comes to things on his own terms.  Still wanted by the government for his actions after his daughter’s death, he’s been living in hiding under an assumed name. At his age, he should be slowing down, but to Sigrud one day is timelessly much like the next – he patiently waits for Ashara Komayd to contact him, he keeps to himself, and if anyone suspects his identity, he disappears.  In the first two Divine Cities books, Sigrud stole every scene he was in, so it is nice to have an entire novel where he is the star of the show.

artwork by Chanh Quach

As with other Robert Jackson Bennett books, the world building in City of Miracles is fantastic. Gorgeously rendered city scapes,  barren hinterlands, everything in between, and more importantly everything has a history. When you close your eyes, you see it, you are there, you can hear the breeze through the trees, you can find someone nearby who can tell the story of those ruins.  In the twenty years since we first met Shara and Sigrud, the world has changed. A young industrial revolution, of sorts – more automobiles, a sky gondola contraption that goes over the mountains instead of through them, more telephones, etc.   As the younger generation is excited about these new technological developments, the older generation is still getting used to a changing world.

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city of blades RJBCity of Blades, by Robert Jackson Bennett

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.

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2014 has been a pretty good year for me.  Personally, I’m damn impressed with how many of these books were actually published in 2014. As a bonus, there’s even a few novellas and short stories in here. In no particular order, here are my favorite reads of 2014!

Favorite Novels:

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City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett (2014) – that this book is on my list should surprise no one. And if you haven’t read it yet, seriously, get with the program. This is one of those amazing books that defies genre categorization, it just *is*.  To give you a big picture without spoiling anything, it’s about watching your worldview dissolve before your eyes, and understanding that games can be played with many sets of rules. Also? it’s simply fucking amazing.

gemsigns

Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter (2014) – This is probably the most important book I read in 2014. Remember when Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother took high school government classes by storm? I wish the same for this book.  Gemsigns touches on enforced marginalization, building (and breaking down) cultures of racism and classism and fear, and religiously and politically promoted hatred, and handles it in a blunt and emotional way. Also? fucking awesome. And for what it’s worth, I cried at the end.

vandermeer annihilation

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer  (2014) –  I’ve been a Vandermeer fan for a long, long time (yet somehow I can still eat mushrooms). Annihilation was strange, surreal, and seemed to be magnetically attuned to me. The words in the tunnel rang for me like a tuning fork. And there was just something about characters who don’t have names. I am a jerk, however, because I own but haven’t yet read the third book in the series.

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city_of_stairs-cover1City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett

published Sept 2014

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks!)

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Where to start with City of Stairs? To say this book has everything sounds so cliche, doesn’t it?  To say it is funny and subtle and daring and fascinating would also sound cliche. But I’m going to say all of those things anyways, because this is one of those comes-a-long-once-a-decade books that transcends. It’s like one of those Hubble images where scale is all but impossible, where you can zoom in or out, and continually find new structures that your mind tells you shouldn’t exist. That shiver you feel? It’s your worldview expanding.

 

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Hubble image of the Pillars of Creation, taken in 1995. click here for more info on this image.

City of Stairs is a sort of political book that’s got nothing to do with politics, it’s a fantasy where there are miracles but not exactly magic, it’s got romance that’s not traditionally romantic, not to mention culture and beliefs and history and archaeology being treated as if they are living things sitting right next to you waiting for the right moment to tell you their secrets. Like I said, it’s got everything.

 

I was recently listening to a podcast about Cordwainer Smith, and one of the Karens mentioned something about how Smith had come out of nowhere, that he wasn’t building on what other writers had done, and it was as if he was reinventing science fiction. Robert Jackson Bennett is a modern day Cordwainer Smith in a similar fashion. But, if forced to make a connection comparison (because we all like those!), to say “this book is like this other book”, the only one that comes to my mind is The Scar, by China Mieville, and only because of the depth of secrecy involved and the ultimate and intimately personal goals of some of the characters.

 

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City of Stairs starts with a courtroom ruling, followed by a train arriving in the middle of the night.

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scifi month header

Thanks to the amazing organization skills of Rinn over at Rinn Reads, we’re right in the heart of  Science Fiction Month. And I’ve noticed something. Something wonderful: lots of folks who are participating in SciFi Month are completely new to science fiction.

This is fantastic!  That so many people who have never picked up a science  fiction book are interested in giving some weird stuff a try, it warms my heart.  Getting into science fiction isn’t always easy.   Strange names, alien planets, technobabble, far future technologies. . .  it can be a bit much.  Luckily, there are plenty (countless, actually) of “gate way” books, books that take place right now, or maybe a few years in the future, or even a few years in past. Books that don’t leave the solar system, maybe don’t even leave the Earth. You don’t need to be fluent in technobabble or have a degree in astronomy to enjoy these. You just need to turn the first page. . .

to help you on your journey into scifi, I’ve linked the titles to my reviews.  If you have any suggestions for other gateway books, let everyone know in the comments!

American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett – After her parent’s death, Mona inherits her Mom’s old house in a sleepy town in the southwest. It’s one of those old fashioned towns, where everyone knows everyone else, and the oldsters remember all the family secrets. there are family secrets, and then there are Family Secrets. How will Mona react when she learns her own?

In the Garden of Iden, by Kage Baker. I love Kage Baker, it’s as simple as that. This novel is the first of her Company Series. Don’t worry, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, you won’t feel sucked into reading another long series. Mendoza is an operative with a company that collects historical artifacts, and they’ve turned her into an immortal cyborg, of sorts. She spies on people, but can’t tell anyone who or what she is. Really sucks, when she falls in love with someone on her first mission. This book is as heartbreaking as it is funny. By the way, I’ve got a review of some Kage Baker Company short stories that’ll be posting in a few days.

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Thanks to the wonderful folks at Orbit Books, I have an extra copy of Robert Jackson Bennett’s supernatural thriller (and mind blowing masterpiece)  AMERICAN ELSEWHERE.

I absolutely loved AMERICAN ELSEWHERE, you can read my review here, and you can read an excerpt from the book over here at Orbit.

Rules for the give away:

1. to enter, comment on this post.  when you sign in to comment, make sure you leave me your e-mail address, or a twitter, or some other way to get a hold of you.

2. give away is open to all residents of planet Earth. Orbit was kind enough to send me 2 copies of this book, the least I can do is pay for some shipping someone else can enjoy this amazing novel.

3. give away closes at midnight, eastern time, on Tuesday February 19th, and the winner will be announced and contacted shortly afterwards.

4. be warned.  this book will completely blow your mind.  I am not responsible if you get absolutely no sleep while you are reading this book, are late to work, or generally ignore your family while reading.

Bennet_AmericanElsewhere_TP

Bennet_AmericanElsewhere_TPAmerican Elsewhere, by Robert Jackson Bennett

published Feburary 2013

where I got it: received review copy from Orbit Books

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In the early days, I was a huge fan of M. Night Shyamalan.  The Sixth Sense was groundbreaking, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched Signs, and even The Village has redeeming qualities. (and because I greatly enjoy those films, we’re not even going to talk about Shyamalan’s flops, of which there are many) What do those films have in common? A style that immediately pulls you in, perfectly timed and suspenseful disconnects between what people say and what’s really going on, compelling characters, isolated environs that feel timeless, cliffhanger scenes, and a climax that (although sometimes very silly) that reminds you he’s been giving you hints all this time, you just weren’t looking for them.  I do have a soft spot for misdirection.

Now imagine if the endings of Signs and The Village weren’t completely silly. Imagine if those endings were sublimely perfect, if they were everything you wanted the end of a thriller to be. You’re starting to get close to the feeling of American Elsewhere.

You know those books that completely bowl you over? The ones where you know you’ll be buying every book the author ever writes?  The ones where every time you finish a chapter you slowly whisper holy shit to yourself? The ones that make you ask “Hey author! Where have you been my whole life??”  American Elsewhere is that book.

American Elsewhere is so many flavors of phenomenal that I don’t even know where to start. Compelling characters that I cared about immediately? check.  A multi-faceted mystery that kept me guessing until the final reveal? check check.  A story structured and paced in such a way to give intimate scenes and action sequences equal billing for importance? that too.  Even if you’re not into thrillers or supernatural mysteries,  you will still love this book. (One caveat: if you’re offended by strong language this may  not be the book for you. Mona uses the f-bomb even more than I do.)

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.