|Image from www.quercusbooks.co.uk|
Robert Jackson Bennett
Jo Fletcher Books, 4 May 2017
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.
Sigrud je Harkvaldsson is back, and this time he's out for vengeance...
This is the third and final part of Bennett's Divine Cities trilogy, three books I have found delightful, entertaining and deeply accomplished.
In the world of the Divine Cities, miracles are commonplace, the Dininities walk among us and reality is mutable. But not everyone benefits from this: the Divine is here, but is unequally distributed - and for centuries, it was the people of the Continent who had the miracles, and the people of Saypur who paid the price. In an act of unforseen violence, the Divinities were slain and reality Blinked.
The first book, City of Stairs, explored the moral ambiguities behind this post-colonial situation where the formerly oppressed rule and seek to erase the culture of their oppressors. The focus of that book was the wily spy Shara Komayd, sent to investigate a murder in the city of Bulikov (in these books, the Continent has Slavic overtones and its residents are pale skinned while the Saypuris are darker).
The second book, City of Blades, focussed on Komayd's sparring partner, General Turyin Mulaghesh, brought out of retirement to clear up a mess. Both Komayd and Mulaghesh are delightful characters, professionals, even ruthless professionals, committed to, and masters of, the political game that is Saypuri public life, well connected, realistic, mired in compromise - but seeking a better way. We never actually get to see much of the Saypuri bureaucracy and its machinations, since the books are really about the crises that these two women face when the past won't stay buried and history threatens to turn upside down (again). But Bennett is really, really good at suggesting, at hinting... you just know what kind of organisation stands behind Shara and Turyin, what dangers they face, how high the stakes are.
'It's unfair that the dead leave us... but it's worse that they never really go away.'
Both books also feature Sigrud je Harkvaldsson, a great bear of a man from the North, Shara's sidekick with whom we learn - again hints, few details - she's shared a career's worth of adventures, scrapes and situations. An exile from his people, Sigrud is a lonely figure with a bad habit of continually losing what he values - family, home, honour - until at the end of City of Blades he is forced to flee, having committed a terrible crime.
In City of Miracles, Sigrud gets his own book. We learn more about his past, and what his losses mean to him. About the desire for revenge, and what it cost him and - in the end - who he truly is. Because he's got a part to play in making things right.
And they have gone terribly wrong. Shara has been murdered, leaving her adopted daughter unprotected, and once Sigrud hears about it, it's time for him to dig up his old work tools and come out of the forests to track down her killer and find what was behind the crime.
What follows is a truly white knuckle adventure filled with marvels, squalor, Divinities, spycraft, escapes, deaths - and an implacable enemy, something that can use the shadows to strike and which is very hungry. Sigrud begins simply wanting to avenge Shara, then he realizes that he has a bigger task - and that in the end, time will be against him.
I can't tell you how delighted I was to read this book, to meet, especially, Sigrud again and to see him account for himself and try to redeem himself (whether he does I'll leave it to you to judge). One of the strengths of these books has always been Bennett's characterisation of his three central protagonists. Sigrud's pain, his despair and his loyalty have always shone through but with more focus, in this book, they become nuanced, both more and less than in the previous ones and he has much more of a role in shaping the story. Which isn't to say that he overpowers everyone else: there are some other truly great - and horrible - characters here, including a pair of villains who are the embodiment of creepiness, a tough billionaire businesswoman who habitually clutches an automatic rifle, and a pair of teenage girls - one of them Shara's adopted daughter - who won't be pushed to the margins of things.
There are also some wonderful feats of imagination as the story powers towards its conclusion - my favourite was the Aero Tram which now HAS TO BE BUILT - but the idea of a seneschal (you'll have to read the book!) comes close as does the final release of Bulikov's miracles.
And there's dark humour:
'He takes a long, slow breath. 'In my operational days, there were three ways of thinking about things. There were things you knew. There were things you knew that you didn't know. And then there were the things that you didn't know you didn't know.'
'No wonder we keep having so many international crises' she said 'if you lot are running around talking like that.' "
Look, just read the book. It's brilliant in so many different ways - as a book in its own right, as the conclusion to a dizzying, ground-breaking fantasy trilogy and as an inseparable part of that trilogy.
This isn't fantasy with a Map and Dragons, it is fantasy with telephone, trains and radio yet still in a world of the deeply weird, a world where there is a Divine ecology which has been upset. It has things to say about power imbalances, about revenge and retribution, about progress and backwardness, about grief, loss and exile, but above all it's an epic story - epic not in the "ten thousand warriors thundered across the plains" sense, epic in its humanity, its sympathy and its empathy.