This was not what I expected.
Enchanted by City of Stairs (my review), I worked my way backward through some of Bennett’s earlier books, including American Elsewhere (review) and The Troupe. Solid writing chops, vivid imagery, stellar characterization, and clear improvement with each published book. To say I was looking forward to City of Blades was an understatement.
“Though he’s never been involved in an operation–besides Bulikov, which he feels doesn’t count–he can’t help but be a little concerned about how all this is starting. And he’s not sure why a letter containing only the words ‘Make it matter‘ could have any impact on whether it starts at all.”
City of Blades begins on a small island where General Turyin Mulaghesh has retired from the Saypuri Military Council. A note from current Council President Shara along with threat to her pension brings her out of retirement for a short term posting to the Continent, to the would-be seaport “Voortyashtan, ass-end of the universe, armpit of the world.” With the cover story of a temporary posting until meeting retirement qualifications, Turyin is to investigate the disappearance of Special Investigator Choudhry, herself posted there under subterfuge. Unfortunately, the outpost is on the edge of unsecure territory. There is the protection of a military fort, ostensibly working for peace between themselves and the hill tribes, while a team from the Dreyling States is building a seaport that’s destined to make the port a crucial player in international economics. The port requires excavation of a former god’s city that is now underwater, and people are nervous about the potential of the Divine–even if all the gods are dead. Except as Turyin now knows, there’s been a discovery of a miraculously conducting metal that might mean the gods aren’t completely dead.
While it is a complicated story, the reader is eased into it, first through meeting Turyin and then as she gets more information on her assignment. Flashbacks come naturally to Turyin as she travels, meeting people she used to know early in her career. The story takes place five years after City of Stairs, so while it may help to have read it in order to understand the complex history between the Saypur people and the Continentals and the Continental relationship to the Divine, it isn’t strictly necessary. However, there’s a lot of subtleties to these relationships that add tension and emotion, so I’d recommend it.
Unsurprisingly with Bennett, characterization is well done. General Turyin is rough, unskilled in diplomacy or in undercover techniques, in chronic pain, and feels vastly inadequate to the task. Verbally, she’s a little bit shocking, although her internal dialogue gives her greater subtlety. Strangely, it’s hard to get a sense of the missing agent Choudhry, although perhaps it is because as everyone says, she was going mad. But the character of Turyin dominates:
“Mulaghesh walks to the railing. ‘You want to know why I’m here? Here of all places on this damned world?’ ‘Tell us!’ shouts one of the men below. ‘Tell us!’ ‘Fine!’ snarls Mulaghesh. ‘I’m on vacation, you dumb sons of bitches.
Plotting was a tad dizzying, but it comes together at the end. If I had any complaint, it would be that certain peripheral characters occasionally seemed forced to act in order to move a plot point forward rather than story-built motivation.
“Biswal told them over and over again it was to be a civilized, strategic procession… But it quickly became such a hard thing, executing a civilized war. The people in these villages did not evacuate quietly, no matter how much Yellow Company ordered them to.”
The hardest part for me was the emotional tone of the book. If Stairs was about the relationship of people to their divine, Blades is about soldiering and promises. It is hard hitting, a commentary on politics, violence, and bloodshed and it goes on to make the point again. And again. And again. While brutal and relentless, the General remains determined. Near the end, it hit a little too closely to my own personal life, as well as our cultural lives as Americans, the idea of incremental, partial gains instead of winning the whole battlefield. The best Turyin can hope for is to minimize the number of deaths. Along these lines, there’s an authorial choice for a character that I vehemently disagree with in terms of hope and the future. Unlike Bennett’s other books which tend to have strong hopeful notes, this feels grim-noble, resolute to stay the ethical course but ultimately doomed to unsuccessful struggle.
Above all, the writing is stunning.
“And this realization, this bright, brittle memory, formed a tiny crack insider her, and suddenly she understood what she’d done, what they’d all done, and she burst into tears and sank to the ground.”
Ultimately, highly recommended. But read City of Stairs first, and prepare to have your gut wrenched.
Many thanks to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for an arc of this book. Note that while the quotes are taken from an advance copy and are subject to change, they give the flavor of Bennett’s powerful writing.