I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett
Series: The Divine Cities #2
Published by Broadway Books on January 26 2016
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
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The nitty-gritty: A big, complex and emotional sequel that delivers on all levels, with the best female characters you’re likely to read all year.
Mulaghesh slows to a stop as it comes into view. It is like a dome—a broad, brown, curving structure nearly thirty or forty feet wide. But it is made entirely out of beaten and smelted-down blades: sword blades and axe blades, knives, scythes, the tips of spears and arrows, all mashed together and layered on top of one another until they form a brown, rusted tangle of sharp edges. The entryway to the dome is lined with sword blades, all pointed in like teeth in the maw of some great beast. It is the single most hostile thing Mulaghesh has ever seen in her life.
City of Stairs was a revelation for me: a near-perfect story that made me want to shout my love for it out loud, to strangers, in public. And so I was beyond excited to read the follow-up, which turned out to be not so much a sequel as a companion story, set in the same world, with some of the same characters, but with a much different feel to it. City of Blades is just as skillfully written, and I ended up loving it almost as much as City of Stairs, but I didn’t have the same emotional reaction to it, which might make me the black sheep reviewer of this book. This one felt so much longer to me, even though both books are more or less the same length. Where City of Stairs was a brighter, funnier and more upbeat story, City of Blades is much bleaker, and for that reason I struggled to embrace it completely. A very slow beginning (for me, at least) made this a tough read—UNTIL I got to about the fifty percent mark, and then it took off like a rocket.
At its heart, this is a carefully crafted mystery, which may account for the slow beginning, as Bennett is laying the groundwork for a fantastic reveal at the end. General Turyin Mulaghesh is reluctantly called out of retirement by her friend Shara, the main character from City of Blades, in order to look into the disappearance of Sumitra Choudhry, an employee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who disappeared from Voortyashtan, where she was investigating an ore that appeared to have Divine qualities. If you’ve read the first book, you’ll know that the Divinities have all died, and that there are (supposedly) no more Divine artifacts left. Mulaghesh arrives in this harsh and crumbling city to find several groups of people living in an uneasy alliance: the Dreylings, who have an ambitious plan to open the harbor and bring commerce back to Voortyashtan; a military presence who control a secret mine; and the outlying tribes living along the river.
She immediately begins her undercover investigation, and it doesn’t take long to realize that the disappearance of Choudhry goes far deeper than she first thought. As each new puzzle piece falls into place, Mulaghesh unveils a devastating and unbelievable plot that could end the world for good.
It was so much fun to revisit the incomparable character of Turyin Mulaghesh, who completely steals the show in this book. If you’ve read other reviews of City of Blades, then you will know I’m not the only one who thinks so! Mulaghesh is not only a smart (and smart-ass!) middle-aged woman, but she’s got SO many layers that she literally jumps off the page, she’s so three-dimensional. She was one of my favorite characters in City of Stairs, but in this book we get to learn much more about her past history as a soldier and all the terrible decisions she’s had to make in the name of serving her country. She runs into some people from her past, most notably a man named General Biswal with whom she served during a horrific event called the Yellow March. Mulaghesh has a way of interacting with her fellow companions that is so delightfully funny and unexpected, and it’s hard to decide which pairing I loved the most. But it’s her way with words that won me over the most:
“By all the hells,” says Mulaghesh. “If you’re not the kin of Sigrud je Harkvaldsson, then I am a dead fucking dog.”
The “kin” she’s referring to is none other than Sigrud’s daughter Signe, who is a wonderful character in her own right. Like all of his characters, Signe has secrets and a tortured past, which Bennett gradually dishes out. Sigrud eventually enters the story, and I loved their poignant but uncomfortable relationship.
I mentioned before that this story is dark, and despite some much-needed lighter moments, more than anything this is a story about the effects of war, both on the individuals who are in the thick of it, and the scars it leaves behind on everyone and everything it touches. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the biggest fan of war stories, but Bennett masterfully integrates the emotional impact of war while still leaving plenty of room to explore the many fantastical parts of the story.
And those fantasy elements were my favorites. The sword on the book cover hints at one of the more important story lines, and the book is chock full of awesome things like hidden statues of gods, a mysterious ore with ties a dead goddess, an underwater city, and much, much more. Bennett’s imagination is staggering, and I honestly can’t wait to see what he comes up with in the third book.
But I did have trouble with the pacing in the beginning, as I mentioned before. The first half of the book especially is filled with passages and passages of exposition, as the characters explain various histories to each other in order to catch up the reader. While I can appreciate why these explanations were needed, they slowed things down for me, and reading on my Kindle didn’t help either (“Wait, I’m still at 7%??”)
But you can’t deny this is one of the best fantasy series out there. I eagerly await the next book, and based on the ending, I have to predict that Mulaghesh’s story isn’t over yet. Epic, emotional, funny, terrifying, and filled with some of my favorite characters ever, City of Blades is a must read.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.