Thursday, 18 May 2017

Book Review | City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett


Revenge. It’s something Sigrud je Harkvaldsson is very, very good at. Maybe the only thing. 

So when he learns that his oldest friend and ally, former Prime Minister Shara Komayd, has been assassinated, he knows exactly what to do—and that no mortal force can stop him from meting out the suffering Shara’s killers deserve. 

Yet as Sigrud pursues his quarry with his customary terrifying efficiency, he begins to fear that this battle is an unwinnable one. Because discovering the truth behind Shara’s death will require him to take up arms in a secret, decades-long war, face down an angry young god, and unravel the last mysteries of Bulikov, the city of miracles itself. And—perhaps most daunting of all—finally face the truth about his own cursed existence.

***

The Divine Cities series comes full circle in City of Miracles, a positively action-packed fantasy about getting your own back. But revenge is not just what the hardy anti-hero at its heart is after: revenge is also what its both figuratively and literally tortured villain is interested in.

This child of the night, who shall not be named because to identify him is to invite his wickedness in, is not a divinity like the other antagonists of Robert Jackson Bennett's incomparable narrative—at least, not quite. He's really just an angsty adolescent; a "selfish kid who thinks his misfortunes are bigger than everyone else's" and has decided to take his frustrations out on everyone around him.

Unfortunately for everyone around him, this angsty adolescent just so happens to be the spawn of a few fallen gods. To wit, he has a domain—the dark—and some of his mother and father's magic. City of Miracles begins with him flexing his miraculous muscles: by outfitting an assassin to slaughter the former Prime Minister—and the first of this spectacular saga's protagonists—Ashara Komayd.

When news of Shara's shocking death reaches a remote logging range beyond Bulikov, every man around the campfire is taken aback, but only one among them takes it personally. He is City of Miracles' new central perspective, and whilst he hasn't played this role before, he's a figure folks who've followed this fiction will be intimately familiar with; a fan-favourite character, in fact, who has flitted around its fringes but never before been at its fore. That's right, readers: the focus of Bennett's barnstorming finale is finally on Shara's right-hand man, the Dreyling she saved who has saved her so often since. Good to see you again, Sigrud!

Following the death of his daughter in City of Blades, not to mention the mindless massacre that followed, Sigrud je Harkvaldsson has been in exile, none too patiently awaiting the day when Shara can at last bring him back into action. But with his dearest friend so dramatically departed, what does he have left to live for? Nothing, initially, but a need to make her murderer pay.

He does so summarily, racking up a rather improbable body count in the process. As a member of the supporting cast who crosses his fiery path puts it: "You've lost none of your subtlety, Sigrud."

But whilst raining hell on everyone who had a hand or even a hair in Shara's assassination, our daring Dreyling learns about a scheme that gives him a reason to keep on keeping on. In short, "someone is targeting Shara's adopted daughter" Tatyana, and having failed to save his last loved one, the least he can do, he reasons, is ensure that this small part of her legacy lives on.

To do what needs doing, he has to go to Ghaladesh. "Ghaladesh, the capital of Saypur, the richest, most well-protected city in the world. The place with perhaps the most security in the civilised nations—and thus the place that he, a fugitive from Saypur's justice, is most likely to be caught, imprisoned, tortured, and possibly—or probably—executed."

Sigrud does wonder "if he has it in him to do this. It's been years since he worked as an operative," after all. "Perhaps this is foolish. Perhaps he's an old dog insisting he can still perform old tricks." But this old dog is on the cusp of discovering something about himself that stands to recast his tragic past; something that allows the author to develop his series' most stalwart character into more than the man of action he has frequently been.

It's a bit of an easy out, if I'm honest, but it serves to present Sigrud at his most solicitous, his most human, here at the end of Bennett's series. He's clearly a hero, and he-who-we-agreed-not-to-name is every inch the villain. The hellish things that latter has been put through are stirring to start, but what sympathy we might have felt for him is roundly rebuffed by the sheer unreason of his self-serving, world-ending rebellion. That said, these teenage tendendies don't stop City of Miracles' big bad from being deeply creepy:
"The past is the past. It's fixed, unchangeable, unattainable. But our enemy... he's elastic. Very expansive, so to speak. His domain represents something primitive, something primal. The long night, the first night. The fear you feel when you're all alone in your house, and all the rooms feel so dark? That's him. That's him leaking into your frail little bit of civilisation, that first, dangerous night mankind spent out under the skies."
City of Miracles develops The Divine Cities' secondary world as well. Much as Mark Charan Newton did in his underrated Legends of the Red Sun series, Bennett has steered each addition to his trilogy towards an unexplored shore, and it's to his credit that he attempts to differentiate Ghaladesh from the various environs we've been to previously:
Bulikov was a schizophrenic, crumbling mess. Voortyashtan was hardly more than a savage outpost, and Ahanashtan was built specifically to serve the shipping channel, creating a half-industrial, half-urbane hybrid of a city. 
But Ghaladesh is different. Ghaladesh, unlike all the other cities [Sigrud has] ever seen, is intentional
You can see it when you walk from block to block. From the graceful wooden posts that so many houses sit on to the drains in the street to the curves of the elevated train, you can see how this was not just done well but done just—so. Ghaladesh, he sees, is a city of engineers, a city of thinkers, a city of people who do not act rashly.
But City of Miracles is, above all else, an ending, and Bennett is evidently determined to make it one to remember, so at the same time as spinning a yarn that satisfactorily caps the saga's overarching narrative, he had a lot of loose ends to address, and any number of character arcs to conclude. All this he handles marvellously, such that The Divine Cities doesn't just feel finished after its last act, it feels complete. Alas, the pattern Bennett had established in terms of his settings falls victim to this last book's busyness. We end up spending so little time in Ghaladesh, and almost none simply soaking it in, that it, in the end, is faint and forgettable where its predecessors were deftly drawn and memorable.

That's not the end of the world, though, because the momentum that this book accumulates over its course, like a wrecking ball raised higher and higher above the wall it's to demolish, allows City of Miracles to circle back to where Bennett's series began—and in the company of some of the same souls who were there in those days—in time for "one big push" towards an ending as tremendous as it is affecting.

That "all things must end" doesn't make it any easier to bid goodbye to those things, but the fact that this sequence—this breathtaking last battle between gods and monsters with mortals such as us stuck in the middle of it—strikes the same balance between the mundane and the majestic that has been a strength of this series from the first... that's as fitting a farewell to The Divine Cities as any I can imagine.

***

City of Miracles
by Robert Jackson Bennett

UK Publication: April 2017, Jo Fletcher
US Publication: April 2017, Broadway

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