Some authors always manage to surprise me. Bennett is one of them, with each book I’ve read a very different flavor from the other. Characterized by complex characters, his stories tend to have vivid world-building and plots that explore the relationship between mundane and divine. City of Miracles is the third book set in the Divine Cities, and although one could read and enjoy it perfectly well as a stand-alone, part of the richness in the story comes from the history of both the world-building and the individual characters.
City begins bloodily, shockingly, a definite departure from the ex-Prime Minister Shara’s study in City of Stairs, or Mulaghesh’s slovenly cottage in City of Blades. It begins with a back-alley killing and then a vicious attack. Sigurd, Shara’s bodyguard and comrade in City of Stairs, hears of Shara’s assassination while working a logging job in the middle of nowhere. He swears revenge, rapidly makes his way to the city where Shara disappeared, and sets to tracking those responsible.
Stop me if you heard this before.
It’s true; Bennett started with classic revenge fantasy, giving it, of course, his own lovely spin on the emotion and the world. Shara is “a woman so esteemed and so notorious and so influential that everyone seems to be waiting on history to get around to judging her so they can figure out how to feel about her tenure as prime minister. A person made of the stuff of legends.” The story is very much colored by Shara and her legacy, a point that probably will have the most impact for those who have read the series.
Even more than her political legacy, she was the only person remaining that connected Sigrud to humanity. “He looks down at his hands. Scarred, worn, ugly things-the left, especially, its palm brutally mutilated using a Divine torture method long, long ago. I was only ever meant for one thing, he thinks. He slowly makes fists. The knuckles pop and creak unpleasantly. Meant to practice one art. How just it feels that now I shall do so.“ It remains brutal while Sigrud seeks his revenge, and only folds into more gentle emotion as he discovers remaining connection to Shara and discovers the project she was working on.
I’m often hooked by the dual plot technique, the immediate mystery with a larger background and unanswered questions. The assassin is soon unmasked, but that only leads to questions about what Shara was working on and who the mastermind is. Is Shara still alive? Like Sigrud, the reader can’t quite believe that she is dead. This is the world of miracles, after all, although the age of the Divine seems to be mostly over. When Sigrud decides to protect Shara’s adopted daughter, it leads to more questions. It felt unusually plot/event driven to me, more so because I associate Bennett’s writing with detailed character memories, seemingly non-conflict focused events and general world-building. City of Miracles is very exciting and very hard to put down.
A lovely bit of writing that describes the antagonist:
“The first night that humanity experienced. Before light, before civilization, before your kind named the stars. That’s what he is, that’s how he works. He is darkness, he is shadows, he is the primeval manifestation of what’s outside your windows, what’s beyond the fence gate, what lives under the light of the cold, distant moon…”
Narrative is largely third-person, focusing on Sigrud, but there are a few character viewpoints shared throughout the story, giving insight into the conflict and the character of the antagonist. Although this technique often annoys me because of its lazy application to escalate tension, in this case Bennett uses it to bring both emotional depth and tragedy to the antagonist. It’s one of the fascinating things about Bennett’s writing that seems to flavor all his works, that exploration of damage, choice and evil. The ending, while non-unexpected, is sob-worthy. Good stuff.
“Some things even a miracle can’t suppress, I guess. Sometimes I wonder if we’re little more than walking patchworks of traumas, all stitched together.” They sit in silence for a moment, watching the waves churn and roil under the overcast skies.
*Quotes taken from an ARC and may change in the published copy.
And for my friend, Cillian: