I was of two minds when I learned that Robert Jackson Bennett would be making a return journey to the world and the wares he so successfully peddled in City of Stairs. On the one hand, he hardly scratched the surface of Saypur and the Continent it opted to occupy in that multiple award-nominated novel; on the other, I feared a sequel would bring to an end to the endless reinvention that has kept the aforementioned author’s efforts so incredibly fresh. And it does… until it doesn’t.
For all that City of Blades shares with City of Stairs, Bennett’s decision to bench book one’s embattled protagonist Shara Komayd in favour of General Turyin Mulaghesh sets the two texts apart from the start.
In the several years since the ungodly conflict which capped that last narrative, the hero of the Battle of Bulikov has entirely retired—from the adoration of the army, from the appraisal of the public eye, and, last but not least, from the expectation that she should be a reasonable human being. It follows that we find Mulaghesh on an isolated island; drunk, damn near destitute, and struggling to adjust to life with one less limb than she might like.
But just when she thought she was out, the Prime Minister pulls her back in! When a messenger arrives to request that Mulaghesh do one last secret service for Saypur, she sees an opportunity to resolve some of the hellish memories and awful losses that haunt her:
She couldn’t erase the past, but maybe she could keep it from happening again. Some young men and women, Continental and Saypuri, never made it home because of her. The least she could do was make sure others didn’t fall to the same fate. It’d be a way to make the dead matter. A way to put back some of what she’d broken.
What the messenger doesn’t tell Mulaghesh—wisely, I’d add—is where she’s to be sent: Voortyashtan is, after all, the “ass-end of the universe [and] armpit of the world.” There, there’s “a one in three chance of her being murdered or drowning or dying of the plague”—fittingly for a country famed first and foremost for its apparently-departed Divinity: Voortya, the god of war and death.
Assuming Mulaghesh lives long enough to make landfall, she’s to follow in the footsteps of Sumitra Choudhry, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official who fell to what may have been foul play whilst following up on the origins of an ore that stands to revolutionise everything:
If this material possesses astonishing properties, and if those properties can’t be explained, then it’s possible those properties are miraculous: the product or direct creation of one of the ancient Continental Divinities. Between the actions of Shara and her great-grandfather, the much-revered Kaj of Saypur, nearly all of the original Continental Divinities should be dead, and all their miraculous items completely dead and nonfunctional with them. So if this stuff is miraculous, thinks Mulaghesh, then maybe yet another Divinity isn’t as dead as we’d like it to be.
Between a mystery set in motion by the unfortunate fate that befalls a scholar, the discovery of a material that may be magical and suspicions that a particular Divinity might not be as dearly departed as previously believed, it’s fair to say that the story so far has quite a lot in common with the plot of City of Stairs—and there are still several striking similarities ahead, including a positively catastrophic climax on a night “filled with the screams of soldiers and civilians, scrambling and scrabbling in the face of incomprehensible war.”
Add to that Sigrud’s surprisingly prominent role in the whole, not to speak of Shara’s bracketing part, and the fact that the tale takes place in another country that feels unfinished because of the Blink—an earth-shattering event “which caused all the miracles that supported the Continent’s way of life to abruptly vanish”—and in terms of setting, character and narrative, City of Blades starts sounding rather like a retread.
That’s by design, I dare say, because before long, Bennett sets about subverting our expectations to typically excellent effect. The narrative, for instance, is not what you think it is; Mulaghesh’s investigation systematically recasts almost every element of the premise, paving the way for some truly terrific twists.
Integral to these are a number of the new characters introduced in book two, such as Sigrud’s delightfully difficult daughter Signe, Mulaghesh’s forlorn former boss Biswal, Voortyashtan’s famed innovator Vallaicha Thinadeshi, and sweet little Rada Smolisk, governor of the polis where the majority of the manifestly mythical action happens.
I won’t say who, but a few of those folks have something to hide—something that has its explanation in City of Blades‘ setting, which is eventually differentiated from Saypur in the attitudes its upstairs/downstairs division engenders in its inhabitants. Though they are, like the Saypuri, a people trying and frequently failing to find themselves now that the Divinities that used to define them are dead, the ancient history they have to fall back on is very different indeed to the various affairs Bennett explored in City of Stairs.
Mulaghesh, in the meantime, is magnificent. She has the same short fuse and a foul mouth that made her such a standout to start with, the same willingness to cut through to the quick of things, and in City of Blades Bennett embellishes her brilliantly, explaining at the same time as complicating her character with just a few flashbacks to something called the Yellow March.
One might, quite rightly, hold Mulaghesh high as an example of a strong female character, but she also serves as compelling evidence that older protagonists are at least as appealing as the teens and twentysomethings speculative fiction so often features—if not markedly more so, in that they have reams of life experience to draw upon as opposed to inexplicable amnesia or somewhat troubled childhoods. Moreover, Mulaghesh is an older woman with a significant disability, yet she carries the entire narrative single-handedly.
On the back of a fantastic central character, City of Blades does everything a really good sequel should. If anything, it’s a better book than its predecessor, but without it, it wouldn’t be. It isn’t merely more of what came before; it takes what was as a basis and builds on it brilliantly, adding additional layers to City of Stairs such that it too is enriched.
I was worried that by interrupting a run of superlative standalone stories to finesse a follow-up to the fifth, Robert Jackson Bennett risked repeating himself, and that was my mistake to make. I’ll tell you this, though: being wrong has rarely felt so right.
City of Blades is available now in the US (Crown/Archetype) and the UK (Jo Fletcher Books).
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.