In the normal course of things, I go into a book knowing whether or not it is part of a series. It’s rather like ensuring I know what I get into before I embark on a relationship (platonic or otherwise): I am, after all, about to invest a significant amount of time and emotion into something, and I want to make sure the investment is worth the trouble. And most of the time, this works: I know whether or not a book is part of a series, and I can prepare myself to either drop the whole thing if the first book does not satisfy me, or commit to the long haul if it does.
However, this does not always work. Sometimes a book will start out as a standalone, and then I find out later that the author, for some reason, has decided to expand it into a series. Decisions like these tend to unnerve me, especially if the original work ends tidily enough. I ask myself: how else is the author going to expand this story? What other threads were left untied? How could the author possibly improve on perfection?
As it turns out, it all depends on the author. Some authors fail miserably, while others succeed immensely. Fortunately, Robert Jackson Bennett belongs to the latter group, as he shows in City of Blades, the sequel to City of Stairs.
City of Blades takes place several months after the conclusion of City of Stairs. The political landscape of Saypur has changed immensely since Ashara Komayd returned to Ghaladesh, but General Turyin Mulaghesh wants nothing of it. Now retired, she lives on the island of Javrat, as far away from Saypuri politics as possible. However, when a Saypuri secret agent goes missing in the Continental city of Voortyashtan, Shara pulls Mulaghesh out of retirement to track the missing agent down. When Mulaghesh arrives in Voortyashtan, however, she finds out that there are more – and possibly bigger – problems than just tracking down a missing secret agent: problems that lie buried in the city’s past, when it was the home and domain of Voortya, Divinity of war, destruction, and death.
One of the things I enjoy the most about City of Blades is how Bennett is able to take some very large themes and build an engaging and thrilling story around them – something that also occurs in City of Stairs. City of Stairs asks questions about the nature of history, history-making, and truth. City of Blades, on the other hand, asks questions about war: what it means, why it happens, and what happens to those on either side of the conflict.
In choosing to tackle war, however, Bennett avoids glorifying it, and instead depicts its very worst aspects: the blood and the pain and the brutal conditions, yes, but above all the psychological trauma that it causes to those who participate in it, both combatant and civilian. He does his best to tear down the idea that war is noble, instead choosing to call it what it is: murder on a mass scale. The idea is best summarised in the following excerpt:
’Your rulers and their propaganda have sold you this watered-down conceit of war, of a warrior yoked to the whims of civilisation. Yet for all their self-professed civility, your rulers will gladly spend a soldier’s life to aid their posturing, to keep the cost of a crude good low. They will send the children of others off to die and only think upon it later to grandly and loudly memorialise them, lauding their great sacrifices. Civilisation is but the adoption of this cowardly method of murder.’
It is this take on war that makes this book rather difficult to read – not conceptually, but emotionally and psychologically, particularly for readers who have actually been caught up in war, whether as combatants or as victims of conflict. Indeed, the excerpt above has resonance in the here and now, with wars of ideology being waged all around the world: not just in the battlefields of the Middle East and the smoking ruins left behind by both Daesh (i.e. ISIS) and Western military forces, but also within supposedly “peaceful” countries. Consider the reports of racially-driven police violence, or the hate crimes committed against women and members of the LGBTQIA community. Consider how poverty and corruption work hand-in-hand to prevent communities from improving, instead miring them in an endless cycle of crime and violence. When one really thinks about it, we are all at war, and it is wearing us down – not necessarily physically, perhaps, but psychologically and emotionally.
Of course, the above would not mean anything without a firm grounding in the story itself, and Bennett anchors his grand theme in both his plot and his characters – especially his characters. The best example of this is Mulaghesh, who has, more than any other character in the novel, been shaped by the wars that she fought in and survived. In fact, it is those memories that form the core of her characterisation, as shown in this quote:
’… Killing echoes inside you. It never goes away. Maybe some who have killed don’t know that they’ve lost something, but they have.’
In City of Stairs it is hinted that Mulaghesh has terrible memories of the Summer of Black Rivers, a war so bad that in the novel, Shara uses the name of the war as a metaphor for a worst-case, near-apocalyptic scenario. Mulaghesh’s particular role in that war is revealed in City of Blades, and it is not pretty. I will not describe it, because to do so would give away a significant portion of the novel, but suffice to say that it describes, in a manner clear to the meanest understanding, that war destroys not only the victims, but also (or perhaps more so) the victors.
Another theme that Bennett includes in the novel is that of parenthood. It might seem odd to talk about parenthood in a novel that is very explicitly about war, but in truth, it is not very odd at all. War propaganda has tended to frame a soldier’s homeland as the “Motherland” or “Fatherland” in need of protection, and images of parents sending their children off to war, and subsequently celebrating or grieving their return, are equally prevalent. In wartime, mothers are frequently lionised as heroes who give up their own children, their own flesh and blood, for the sake of the nation. It might be said, therefore, that not only is the concept of parenthood closely linked to the concept of war, but is a vital component.
Bennett makes use of this intimate connection throughout City of Blades, again grounding it not just in the plot, but in the characters – and again, specifically, in Mulaghesh. There are moments throughout the novel, but especially in the latter third, when Mulaghesh uses the terms “kids” and “children” to refer to members of the Saypuri military who are lower-ranked than her. She constantly feels, and expresses, a sense of parental responsibility towards those under her direct command, or even those who are not under her direct command but are lower than her in the hierarchy. Incidentally, this theme is echoed in the Divinity Voortya herself, who is called the “Great Mother” at various points throughout the novel.
But again, it must be stated that none of this would work if Bennett was a lesser writer. Through the characters’ internal conflicts, and in their handling of external conflicts, he is able to elaborate upon his themes in a manner that is entertaining without sounding preachy. The reader might laugh at Mulaghesh’s sarcastic comments and foul language, but that laughter is quickly tempered by knowledge of why she is so foul-mouthed, why she is sarcastic. Mulaghesh is Mulaghesh for a reason – for many reasons, and most of them are not merely unpleasant, but utterly heartbreaking.
Overall, City of Blades is an unexpected, but very welcome, sequel. It is still connected to the world and some of the underlying themes elaborated upon in City of Stairs, but it stands very well on its own. It is a brutal book, tackling some very difficult concepts about war, service, sacrifice, and parenthood, but that is why it is a worthy sequel to City of Stairs, a book which itself asks hard questions about faith and truth. I only hope that, if Bennett decides to expand the series, he will continue to address similarly difficult and complex themes.