“Forge a Compass From Your Sorrow” – A Review of City of Miracles by Robert J. Bennett

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This is the third book in a trilogy. Therefore, this review may contain spoilers for the first two books, though it contains no spoilers for this specific book. If the reader has not yet read the first two books, he or she is advised to do so before reading this review.

Trigger warnings for this book can be found at the very bottom of this review.

When I found out last year that Robert Jackson Bennett had written a sequel for his amazing novel City of Stairs, I admit that I was rather skeptical. After all, City of Stairs functioned quite perfectly as a standalone, and I was not quite sure what he would do to continue a story that was already perfect in and of itself.

But then I read that sequel, titled City of Blades, and it was an absolutely amazing read. Not only did Bennett succeed in creating a sequel for what I thought would be a standalone book, but created that sequel in such a way that it was connected to its predecessor on several levels (not just in terms of characters and worldbuilding, but also in terms of thematic coverage), while still making sure the story is more or less self-contained, not requiring a refresher read of the first book in order to recover the thread of the plot. And with this novel, City of Miracles, Bennett brings his series – now confirmed a trilogy – to an appropriate, mind-blowing close.

City of Miracles takes place some years after the events of City of Blades. It follows Sigrud je Harkvaldsson, who has been in hiding since the terrible events in the city of Voortyashtan – events that include the death of his daughter, Signe, and the deaths of dozens of young Saypuri soldiers, whom Sigrud slew in the midst of a berserker-like rage. By remaining in hiding, Sigrud hopes to prevent further tragedies at his hand while he waits for his friend and handler, Shara Komayd, to call him back into service – back to her side – once more.

But events take a tragic turn when Shara is assassinated, and Sigrud’s world is rocked down to its very foundations. Wracked by grief and rage from events both past and present, Sigrud sets himself down the only path he knows to take: the path of vengeance. As he hunts down those responsible for Shara’s murder, he learns that the assassination of his closest friend has less to do with discontent over the policies she instituted as Saypuri Prime Minister, and a lot more to do with the Divine.

When the blurb for this novel first came out, I was utterly shocked to see that within the first few lines it had given away what I thought was a spoiler of epic proportions: Shara Komayd was dead. I was utterly aghast and horrified by the idea of one of my favourite characters being dead, and moreover, to know it even before the book had come out. On hindsight, however, I think Bennett was trying to be kind to his readers: after all, by making it known that Shara was dead in the book’s official blurb, before the novel had even come out, then readers would have time to get over the shock and judge the story outside of their feelings for Shara’s death.

And that has turned out to be a good thing, because although Shara’s death is an important plot point of City of Miracles in that it launches everything else in the novel, it is not the novel’s heart. After all, a death with that kind of impact isn’t really about the person who died, but about the people who will be most affected by said person’s death. And in the world of the Divine Cities trilogy, no one could possibly be more affected by Shara Komayd’s death than Sigrud – and it is his story that is told in this novel.

Sigrud as a character has intrigued me from the moment he stepped off the train in City of Stairs. Brutal in battle but also fiercely intelligent in his own way, he is the perfect weapon – and at the same time, one of the most emotionally vulnerable characters in the entire series. That vulnerability is hinted at in the first book, and made more visible in the second, but it is only in the third book that the reader truly sees how deeply and how badly broken Sigrud is, as illustrated in this excerpt:

I was not there to save you, he says to the photograph. I was not there to save Shara. I was never there of any of it.

He stows the newspaper clipping away in his pocket, then gives the pocket a reassuring pat, as if ushering the memory back to sleep.

He grips his knife in his other hand. His grip is tight, his knuckles a bright white.

Sigrud lunges forward and stabs the dead pine, his knife sinking in almost to the hilt. A sob nearly escapes his mouth, but he retains the sense to strangle it before it can give away his position.

Wretched is the creature, he thinks, that is not even even allowed to weep!

This burden of guilt, both for his daughter’s death and for Shara’s, is what drives Sigrud forward:

An old survival tactic, for Sigrud: to forge a compass from your sorrow, and let it lead you ahead.

Guilt is a furnace that feeds on Sigrud’s soul and drives the engine of his vengeance forward, forward, ever forward. It is such a powerful force that it does not escape the notice of his friends – most notably, Turyin Mulaghesh, the protagonist of City of Blades and who herself has plenty to feel guilty about:

“Sigrud…Sigrud, listen to me. Signe…” She grabs his shoulder and squeezes it. “Signe’s death was not your fault. You know that. You know that, don’t you?”

“Even if I believed that,” says Sigrud, “it would not make me any more whole Turyin. So much has been taken from us. I must do something about that.”

At this point, the reader is probably thinking of a certain kind of movie: the ones about old men who lose everything and have nothing left to them but their vengeance, and so they go seeking and destroying all the people and all the institutions that have done them wrong. The problem with a majority of those movies, though, is that they do not really get to the hard, bitter truth of revenge: that it is as destructive to the self as it is to those they seek to destroy. Even Sigrud knows this:

“To live with hatred,” says Sigrud, “is like grabbing hot embers to throw at someone you think an enemy. Who gets burned the worst?”

As I said, though this is a story that’s become familiar in recent years due to the films that have been built around the concept, it must be said that City of Miracles tells that story with greater depth and nuance than those films ever could. Part of it might be because of the medium, but I think it has more to do with the way Bennett frames Sigrud and his struggles in the preceding books of this series, but most especially in this one.

Another interesting – and heart-wrenching – thematic aspect of this novel is how it deals with the concept of parenthood. This was an important theme in City of Blades, but it is equally important in City of Miracles, albeit from a different perspective. In City of Blades, it was the theme of motherhood in the context of war, as explored through Mulaghesh and Voortya. City of Miracles is not as specific as City of Blades, though it does touch upon complex nature of fatherhood. Instead, it touches upon parenthood in the broadest sense: not only what it means to be a parent to a child, but a parent to a people as a whole. What does it mean to raise an entire nation of people from fragile beginnings to a fully-fledged, functioning country? For that matter: what does it take to create that kind of change in the entire world? These are vitally important questions not only in the context of the novel, but also in the real world. The novel does not offer any easy answers, though it does offer a hint in this quote:

“A better world comes not in a flood…but with a steady drip, drip, drip. …”

Since this is the concluding novel of a trilogy, it is vitally important that it wraps the story up as it deserves. I don’t mean that it must end happily – after all, not all stories can end happily. A story, however must end convincingly: that is, in a manner befitting everything that has happened before. I don’t particularly care if that ending is happy, or if it is sad – what matters more to me, as a reader, is that the ending is satisfying and believable.

Fortunately, City of Miracles is precisely the kind of ending I wanted for the Divine Cities trilogy. I will say nothing further on the matter, lest I spoil it, but suffice to say that it is an ending that rings true with the rest of the trilogy, and wraps it all up in the most satisfying and convincing way possible.

Overall, City of Miracles is an incredible conclusion to an equally incredible series. Though I had doubts about what the story would be like when it was announced that City of Stairs would be the first in a series instead of a standalone, all of those doubts have since been blasted away by City of Blades, and now I am glad that the story has reached its beautiful, heartbreaking conclusion in City of Miracles. This is definitely a series I will return to every so often, and is very much an experience I would recommend to any and all readers, regardless of their preferred genre.

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