City Of Miracles – The Triple Crown

28784121The Quill to Live turned two recently (go us!), and I decided I wanted to do a special review to celebrate our anniversary. I think the best tribute to the site is to review a book we really loved, or maybe talk about something that we have never seen before, or maybe talk about a big upcoming book. Luckily for us, Robert Jackson Bennett was able to provide all three in one package. City of Miracles, the third and final book in The Divine Cities trilogy, comes out later this year (May 2nd in the US) and we were lucky enough to get an advance copy. When we got the ARC in January, I sat on it for about two months (much to the ire to one of the editors) because I was afraid to read it. I had spoken to Bennett and he confirmed that City of Miracles is indeed the end of the line for this story, and I was not ready for it to be over. I wasn’t worried about it being good, I knew it was going to be good, I just didn’t want it to be over. I eventually found the courage to open it up and it was everything I wanted it to be. All good things must come to an end, and this series is most certainly a good thing.

Before I go on, if you have not read City of Stairs or City of Blades – please go do so. There are some mild spoilers ahead and they are two of the best books I have ever reviewed (or read, for that matter). Read them and come back!

City of Miracles picks up our story a few years after City of Blades left off. Our story this time follows Sigrud, spy and major player in both the previous novels, as he moves from a supporting role to the lead man. The book opens with Sigrud on the run for past crimes, when he finds out that his dear friend and partner, Shara, has passed away. This death comes as a huge shock to Sigrud, who has been waiting on a call from Shara for years to tell him he can come back to society – cleared of his crimes. Sigrud travels to Shara’s last known location, dusts off his rusty spy skills, and gets to work finding out what caused the death of his friend and partner. Every Divine Cities book is as much focused on an overarching mystery as on fantasy, and City of Miracles was my favorite enigma to unravel. The book takes everything you have learned about Bennett’s world in the previous two novels and asks you to apply it to new problems. City of Miracles continues to ask new questions and expand the boundaries of what we know about this universe.

The book nails all my usual metrics (characters, worldbuilding, action, creativity, humor, prose, and overarching themes), but instead of talking about the panoply of standard literary measures that City of Miracles nails, I want to talk about a few things it does that are extremely rare. When Bennett originally released the back of the book plot blurb for City of Blades I was disappointed. The book was going to jump forward years, the setting was going to change a bit, and we were going to get a different cast of characters (though many return). I loved the way City of Stairs’ story came together at the end tying everything together, and I wanted more of that story. City of Blades ended up telling a different, but equally incredible, story that once again blew me away. Learning from my presumptions of book two, when I saw City of Miracles once again was a different setting, cast, and time I said “sure, I know it’s going to be amazing”. It is. However, what I didn’t realize was that Bennett was playing a long con on me. On top of being a beautiful book in its own right, Miracles does a great job weaving all three books into one tapestry and it is one of the best and most emotional journeys I have been on. You get to watch a world, and its people, grow and change – which is a rare thing. It gave me hope in our current literary landscape filled with grimdark novels that toll the bell for the end of humanity, and I loved it.

Speaking of emotional journeys, Miracles continues the trend of being an emotional roller coaster that made me cry for both happy and sad reasons. There is something special about The Divine Cities, in that they don’t really feel like escapism pieces. Despite their fantastical settings, their magic filled cities, and their memorable and lovable characters, their lessons just hit a little too close to home for me to be brushed off as fun reads. These books will show you a great time, but also make you think and introspect a lot. I got to see some of my truly deepest fears play out across Miracles’ pages and I think Bennett made me realize they are as real as I imagined. But the power of Bennett’s writing is that not only did he bring these terrors to life, he showed me how to face them. Sigrud’s story was probably my favorite from the trilogy, and just like the other two will break your heart in half. Miracles had one of the best endings I have read to a series, rivaling those of my other top series (Malazan and The Black Company) which had a lot more time to build up to their fiery conclusions. City of Miracles is perfect from start to finish and will be one of the best books to come out in recent memory.

It should be fairly obvious that I am going to give Miracles a perfect ten at this point, but Bennett has achieved more than a perfect conclusion with his latest novel. I have a lot of series that rival this for “all time favorite”, however all of them usually have a few places where I thought it could be slightly improved. The Divine Cities is the first series I have ever read to get perfect tens straight through, with no areas that I think could have been improved. If you haven’t picked up these books yet, I implore you to correct that mistake. Now please excuse me, I am going to go order the rest of Robert Jackson Bennett’s work.

Rating:

City of Miracles – 10/10
The Divine Cities – 10/10

The Divine Cities – An Interview With Robert J Bennett

Recently I had the pleasure to read the fantastic novel City of Blades by Robert J Bennett. The review can be found here but the short story is that the book managed to surpass expectations and live up to the quality established by the first novel in the trilogy, City of Stairs. In the wake of finishing the book, I managed to corner Robert J Bennett and ask him some questions both about the series as a whole, City of Blades, and the upcoming final book City of Miracles. While City of Miracles is awhile off, our discussion only served to raise my anticipation. Enjoy!

It seemed like just about every character in City of Blade were living examples of different ways people can respond to experiencing trauma. Some of the characters seemed to pick better or worse methods to deal with their pain but no one seemed particularly healthy. Do you have a character who you think handled it best without giving away too many spoilers?

Not really. I think the success of dealing with trauma is one of those things that is tremendously hard to quantify or qualify. I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist in any way, nor do I have any background in mental health of any kind, but for the world of THE DIVINE CITIES, trauma is ever-present and undeniable both for the people and the cultures. It’s almost a physical part of the landscape, in some ways.

So I don’t think that, for these stories, there’s any approach you can take that can just make the historical trauma go away, or offset it, or negate it. For these people and these places, this trauma will always be there. I think the hard part is accepting that it is trauma, that it is pain – that the things that happened to them actually happened. These people will always have their pain be a part of them. The question is whether they will allow it to define them. They can grow to be something more than their pain and their scars. But that pain is not going away.

It seems as if technology is continuing to progress at a rather rapid pace both in Saypur and on the Continent. Do you plan to continue with this pace of development in City of Miracles, or do we have a good sense for where the technology of the times is at the end of City of Blades?

Yes. The next book, City of Miracles, takes place 13 years after City of Blades, so quite a bit has changed in that period. The entire series takes place over the course of about twenty years, so to put it in a more familiar context, the characters are going from a culture with the technologies of 1910 and advancing to those of about 1930 or so. This is part of an ongoing theme in the story: the idea of cultures in flux, and how cultures deal with huge shifts in power – which technology, or dead gods, tend to bring about.

Not many fantasy authors choose an older, retired, amputee as their main character. What made you decide to focus on Mulaghesh in City of Blades, and how do we get other authors to see the light?

When I wrote her for the first time in City of Stairs she was just a ton of fun, and when it came time to write the next installment in this world, it seemed inevitable that it’d be her. She, Sigrud, and Shara all form something of a triad in City of Stairs, so we get to follow them throughout the world’s evolution. Mulaghesh was the right character for this one, because while Shara intends to propose change in Stairs, it would be Mulaghesh who would be the executor of that change.

But it was also just an interesting idea for me. The older I get, the less interested I am in youth. I wanted to write someone upper-middle aged – the period at which a person tends to have the most influence – and look at someone with a lot of experiences and a lot of regrets, someone who’d believed things and had those beliefs get challenged and was still trying to figure it all out. It’s something of a John le Carre trope – the melancholy romanticism of the aging field operative. Old enough to have learned a sort of desperate compassion, but not quite so old that it’s been ground out of them. Except he usually writes about men, not women.

What was your inspiration for the books, or more specifically what inspired you to write a tale about the aftermath of oppressor’s becoming the oppressed by their former colonies, and the guilt that comes from both sides?

I was vacuuming at the house one day – I tend to have my best ideas when cleaning house – and Prisoner of Zenda was on the TV on TCM. It’s a fun adventure tale about a British man who goes on vacation to the fictional European country of Ruritania, where he happens to have a strong resemblance to the king, and hijinks ensue. Anyway, I was vacuuming, and I thought, “I bet it’d be very difficult to be an ambassador to a balkanized, fractured place like that, where every region has their own rules” – and that made me think.

So I thought, “Okay. So we have an ambassador to this country – Eastern European, maybe, very male, very macho, very stark, very dour, lots of furs and horns on the walls and so on. What sort of ambassador would most clash with them? Who would be the most out of place, as an ambassador?” And I just thought, “Well, naturally, a highly educated, Southeast Asian woman.” And I don’t really know why, but that just seemed to work.

But then I thought, “Okay. So. These fictional nations. They don’t like this ambassador. They can’t like her, of course, because that’s boring. But they can’t just dislike her because of who or what she is. What greater reason can there be?”

And the answer came back, right away, “Because her country killed all their gods.”

And that was that.

You touch on a wide variety of topics on twitter. I’ve noticed over time that these occasionally find their way into your books. Are there any topics you are yet to explore in depth that you’d like to?

Almost all of the wonkish things that I really want to talk about in conversation are naturally the things that get cut in my books. I touch on it very occasionally, but only when it’s plot-relevant, which, to be frank, it rarely is. I’d love to describe in detail how an at-large electoral system can lead to wild inequality, but at the end of the day, that doesn’t produce any cinematic explosions.

We’ve heard so much about Saypur through characters reminiscing, but have seen very little of it so far. Will we get a chance to see Saypur “in person” so to speak?

Yep. In City of Miracles, Sigrud gets to swing by Ghaladesh, as well as Shara’s ancestral estate. It does not go well.

Your original creatures are incredible and a highlight for me in your novels. Is there anything that influences their creation or do you just pull them from thin air?

I just make ’em up. Usually I try to make it so that their nature or behavior is thematically appropriate – the appearance of the sentinels, for example, accentuates that their entire being is now devoted to hostility.

When writing The Divine Cities series, did you plan out the entire story at the start or have you been writing them as they come? You have mentioned that this is the last book in the trilogy, but is it the last book in the world? Do you know what you are doing next yet?

It’s probably the last book in the world, for the foreseeable future. Most of this has been unplanned. Blades and Miracles were planned side by side much closer than either was to Stairs. I sort of think of it as having one child, then waiting about five years or so, and then having twins. They are all related, but two of them are much more entangled.

At the same time, though, Miracles is proving to really be more in conversation with the first two books than I’d anticipated. A lot of minor characters from Stairs become major characters in this one.

What other fantasy writers, if any. have been influential on your work? What are some of your favorite fantasy novels?

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was the book that most influenced Stairs: this idea of a lost era, wherein the impossible was possible, only no one really understands how it worked anymore – that was a real influence on me. Beyond that, I have a few fantasy novels that I’ve loved as a young person, but when I revisit them, I’ve found them somewhat wanting. I’d rather leave my good memories intact rather than spoil them.

The concept of personal choice and responsibility comes up time and time again in your novels. Along those lines, if you could have one superpower what would it be?

I bet I could get a lot of crucial legislation passed if I had mind control powers, or something similar to what Kilgrave had in Jessica Jones. Only instead of, like, raping women, I would use it to get a carbon tax.

City of Blades – Talent, Not Luck

bennettrj-2-cityofbladesukI was really scared to read City of Blades, by Robert Jackson Bennett. For those of you who missed my review of the first book, City of Stairs, I had some strong feelings about how good it was. However, in many ways City of Stairs drew its story to a close, and while it provided a huge canvas for Bennett to work with, there was not a lot of indication where the series was heading. All of this, combined with the fact that City of Blades follows a different protagonist with a very different worldview, got me worried that lightning might not strike twice as City of Blades seemed  to be a very different book than City of Stairs. It turned out I was both right and wrong; City of Blades is a very different book but is just as good as its predecessor. Bennett both brings in a slew of new elements to mix things up while also retaining the key elements of his powerful writing style that made City of Stairs such an enjoyable read.

Our story picks up after City of Stairs, which if you haven’t read go do so right now, after the protagonists from book one have tried to make reforms in their various countries and bring the world together in one giant Kumbaya of love. It has gone poorly. People are, shockingly, unwilling to drop blood feuds and forget war crimes. While all this reform is going on, Mulaghesh, our older, bitter, military protagonist from book one, has been trying to find a peaceful retirement on a desolate beach. Shara, former protagonist and master of spycraft, knows she is having difficulty adjusting and asks Mulaghesh to go on a mission to the legendary City of Blades to investigate some mysterious happenings. While Mulaghesh is in the vicinity, she connects with a superior officer from her past who is having trouble controlling the populace and a relative of Sigrud who is rebuilding the city. Thus begins another mystery that is slowly pulled apart and solved by a daring and compelling protagonist over the course of a thrilling and exciting novel. The humor is still on point, and the characters are still deep and compelling. Bennett continues to impress with his immersive world building and impressive imagination as City of Blades really delivers, much like the first book, when it comes to a magnificent world to explore and a compelling mystery to solve. However, there are also a lot of key differences.

The focus of the second novel is on the military, and the difficulties of being a soldier. Mulaghesh folds in a completely new perspective to the story and tells the tale in a much more dry and straight manner. Where Shara was prone to skulk, observe, and spy, Mulaghesh lacks her training in spycraft. The soldier asks questions, talks to civilians, and lives up to her background as a military personal and a governor. Bennett’s ability to weave the character’s lives to their POV was masterfully done and results in Blades having a wildly different tone and feel than Stairs. While the other protagonists from Stairs are a part of Blades, the new cast of characters adds even more depth and only made the book better, in my opinion. Signe is a delight and I found that not only did she add a new personality to the dynamic, she created depth in others like Sigrud that I had not seen before.

City of Stairs began fairly innocuously but grew to be a tragic and touching tale of people fighting to improve their way of life. City of Blades starts right out of the gate with a much more tragic and quiet story. The pacing of the novel is back heavy, starting slowly and picking up speed every chapter until I read the back third of the novel without stopping to do anything. The story is about many things, but it is apparent quickly that Mulaghesh is running from her past and seeking atonement for something. Almost the entire new cast of Blades are recovering from some sort of tragedy, or dealing with a new one. The novel at its core is about finding the will to go one when terrible things happen, and at many points Bennett’s writing hit home as I lived through events in character’s past and present, and how it changed them deeply.

For once I really don’t have any critiques for a novel other than “why wasn’t it longer”. I was almost sure it was impossible for me to like City of Blades as much as I liked City of Stairs, but I was wrong. Being wrong only excites me, because at this point Robert Jackson Bennett has proved he didn’t get lucky with City of Stairs; he was just showcasing his talent. I could not be more excited for City of Miracles next year, and when you get a chance please take a moment to read this heart wrenching tale of a soldier seeking redemption.

Rating: City of Blades 10/10

The Masters Of Prose

When talking about the most talented authors, I hear a lot of fans say it comes down to who has the best prose. While I completely disagree that it is the end-all of importance when judging someone’s books, it is none the less an extremely important aspect of every book. Prose is the vessel in which you tell a story, and requests for recommendations of masterful prose have come pouring in. One of the culprits of this surge in prose love is the talented Patrick Rothfuss, a master wordsmith and one of the current kings of the fantasy world. I get daily requests for authors on par with this giant, so I have decided to make a list of the authors I have read that are prose masters and why. So without further delay, in no particular order, let us begin:

cover_ukPatrick Rothfuss – Let’s start with Rothfuss himself as a introduction. Patrick Rothfuss is almost as much a poet as author, and the fact that his character is also poetically inclined only enhances this fact. Rothfuss’s prose feels both beautiful and accessible, which is what makes it such a powerhouse. He describes scenes in vivid detail, but only focuses on the important and does not waste time on the frivolous. With his honed writing and clever direction Rothfuss piques your curiosity and then paints your imagination without a single word wasted. The combination of both beauty and clarity is what makes him so good.

14497Neil Gaiman – Gaiman’s writing always reminds me of Grimm’s Fairy Tales; serious and dark subjects surrounded in whimsy and mystery. There are few authors with prose as imaginative and fun as Neil with his fanciful descriptions and mysterious and silly conversations. Yet these words still pack a punch, with layers of meaning and philosophy built into every single paragraph. Every single time you reread a work of Gaiman’s you will find some new meaning you didn’t see before and find the words more captivating than you remember. He is a thoughtful writer who has induced endless conversations about the complex meanings of stories.

51tpik8k2btlScott Lynch – Lynch has the one of strongest voices I have ever read. When you read any of his books you become the characters he creates, and live their lives. His books are both hilarious and alive. I don’t have a favorite part of any of his novels because if you were to open to any single page and start reading you would find yourself smiling and laughing. His books read like your best friend making you laugh after a rough break up and continue to bring me comfort whenever I need them. His prose will make its way to your heart and warm it with his lovable rogues and perfect humor. I have only found one or two books even close to as dripping with humor as Lynch’s work.

th_b_bennett_cityofstairs_ukRobert Bennett – I have only read one of Bennett’s books, City of Stairs, but it was enough. Bennett has displayed a talent for action, description, and imagination in his prose. His prose has both vivid detail, and an edge of humor, that makes scenes and descriptions both clear, beautiful, and memorable. In addition, in the creation of his original creatures and places he demonstrates a clear talent in helping the reader see his own imagination with clarity and understanding. His outrageous descriptives, dark humor, and use of the present tense in City of Stairs made me feel like I was reading something one of a kind.

61-whhujivl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Joe Abercrombie – Next we have the king of combat and the Escher of the fantasy world, Joe Abercrombie. I think that many in the fantasy world would agree that Abercrombie is one of the, if not the, most clever writers in the genre. There is so much going on in his prose that multiple people can read it, discuss it after, and wonder if they read the same story. Abercrombie’s prose feels like reality instead of a story, and does wonders bringing his tales to life. In addition, there are only a few authors who can write combat prose as well as Abercrombie. Many books feel like people just waving swords, but with Abercrombie you can feelevery sword blow, run every footstep, and take every breathe alongside the warriors in every battle.

828352Terry Pratchett – The world lost a giant when Terry Pratchett passed away last year. I honestly do not feel like I am a good enough writer to describe the power of Terry Pratchett’s prose, so instead for once I am going to refer you to the words of someone else on this list, Scott Lynch, as he describes what it was like to wake up in a world without Terry Pratchett (Warning – It will make you cry).

leguin01Ursula K. Le Guin – Le Guin’s prose is very, very powerful. She writes the kind of novels that make you feel bad about the way you live your life, and cause you to vow to give more to charity. Her prose uses tone and flow masterfully to manipulate your emotions and makes her messages incredibly heavy hitting. She is one of the few authors I have read to move me with just short stories like this one (only four pages long). Her work hits you like a truck full of bricks and is a great choice for someone looking for moving prose.

60211Gene Wolfe – Gene Wolfe writes the most dense, elusive prose I have probably ever read. His works are not on the same continent as “easy reads”. However, while his work requires a huge investment of time and patience, even the smallest snippet of his prose is enjoyable and oversaturated with meaning. You can read a book like Shadow of the Torturer 30 times and still find that each chunk of prose has new secrets that you did not find before. People are still writing books about the depth of his prose 30 years after it was published, so if you are looking for someone who meticulously chooses each word in a sentence/page/chapter/book he is always worth a read.

104089Guy Gavriel Kay – Kay writes mostly standalones, and his release times are infrequent. However, the long waits are always worth it as Kay’s prose will make you feel like you are living in another world or era. Kay is the most transportive writer I have ever read. He spends years studying the cultures and places he writes about so that he can get the details just right. His prose, without fail, takes you on journeys and fully immerses you in the characters lives until they feel like your own. His writing style is also incredibly poetic but also not too dense. This combination creates passages that are deeply moving but don’t require hours of thought to decipher their meaning. If you want to go on a journey, give any of his books a shot.

fellowship-of-the-ringJ. R. R. Tolkien – Tolkien. I feel like I really don’t need to justify why Tolkien is on this list, as Lord of the Rings is accepted as literature by a lot of people. However, I will say this – The Lord of the Rings is the kind of book that everyone wants to say they read, but doesn’t want to actually read. Its combination of popularity and dense prose encourage lots of people to skim through them in order to simple claim they have read it. This is a huge shame, because the prose (and everything) in Lord of the Rings is incredible. Tolkien’s prose is poetically descriptive, deeply laden with metaphors and symbolism, grand and inspiring in scope, and often times surprisingly funny and light hearted all at the same time. There is a reason he will forever be considered one of the all time fantasy masters, if you haven’t take some time and read through his books some time.

City of Stairs – The Whole Package

th_b_bennett_cityofstairs_ukTerrible books are easy to review. They do a lot wrong, so there is a lot to point out and talk about. On the other hand, the best books are incredibly hard to review. You have to keep a tight grip on your writing so that it doesn’t simply spew into “go read this now” and helps articulate what about a book makes it so great. It is a trial to remain objective, while also trying to encourage everyone else to stop what they are doing and go read a book. This is the challenge I will attempt in reviewing City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett.

Starting with some background, the plot revolves around a spy investigating a death, tensions between two major countries, and dead gods. The story takes place on The Continent, a dead and dying country that has fallen from grace, its people struggling with their identity after seeing their gods killed. The Continent used to be a miraculous place where anything could happen. Under the benevolence of six gods, the land flourished and reigned supreme. The Continent had a small enslaved colony named Saypur that they ruled with an iron fist. Unfortunately for The Continent, Saypur rose up, killed all the gods, and reversed the master and slave roles. Our story starts a century after the death of the gods where The Continent, bereft of their all powerful deities, has become essentially a massive ghetto run by Saypur. In the opening pages of the story we learn a Saypuri official has been killed, and a covert operative named Shara arrives to investigate the death. The plot is in the style of a murder mystery that slowly unravels as you learn more about the world and is told in a teasing and fast paced manner. It had me unable to put it down from start to finish, but is only one of the many things that makes the book good.

The main cast is formed from the protagonist Shara, and three supporting characters – Vohannes Votrov, Governor Turyin Mulagesh, and Sigrud. Every single one of them places on my top characters of all time list and are all utterly delightful. Shara is a young spy away from home with an unparalleled understanding of history that empowers her to solve the mystery surrounding the book. She is witty, smart, interesting, relatable, and something unique in a fantasy landscape of similar characters. Vohannes, or Voh, was my personal favorite. A noble of a conquered people, he lives a hard life in the name of making his country better. I have seldom cared about a character as much as I did Voh, and a few of his speeches still keep me up at night thinking about them. Sigrud and Mulagesh are more trope-ish than the other two, but are no less fantastic. A stoic warrior with a penchant for doing the unbelievable, and a jaded military veteran who just wants to retire into her earned relaxation. The four of them have a dynamic that lights up every page as they explore the world.

And what a world it is. Bennett has crafted a fantastic new realm that is alive and ever changing. His humorous prose and imaginative design creates a place that piques your curiosity and vividly fills your imagination. With entirely original settings, creatures, and creations I felt like I finished the book with my imagination expanded and filled with new ideas. I have been around the block a few times when it comes to fantasy creations and I could not believe how many new things were packed into this one book. I had fun understanding how things worked, why things happened, and figuring out what I was looking at. Despite being a fantasy book, Bennett did a good job of laying the clues of the story out for you to find if you look hard enough in the true tradition of mystery novels. City of Stairs is a really fun book, but that isn’t its best quality.

The best thing about City of Stairs is that it does all the amazing things above AND it does it all while also managing to be astoundingly deep and thought provoking. The emotional impact of the plot line is not small, and the workings of the world got me thinking a lot about how the real world works. My favorite books are always those that tell stories bigger that the pages they are printed on and City of Stairs hits this dead on. I will unfortunately not tell you what it made me think about as that would spoil the fun, but know that it made me reassess how I live my life and wonder if there was more I could be doing to help those around me.

I was told by many people to read City of Stairs when it first came out, and I foolishly ignored their advice. While not published in 2015, this was definitely the best book I have read this year, and probably for awhile. Do not make the mistake I did and hold off on reading this gem. The Quill to Live ecstatically recommends you go out and read City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett.

Rating – 10/10