City of Stairs was, without question, my favorite book of 2014. Robert Jackson Bennett’s masterful first stab at epic fantasy plotted an astounding new world, creating a complex, not-quite-modern society where the ways of the old gods collided with an unsympathetic conquering nation. The formerly subservient invading Saypuri islanders threw off the yolk of godly oppression, throttling the very mention of the revered, magical divinities, with severe penalties for the downtrodden continentals. But that brash banishment rested upon a cracked foundation, lighting the fuse for an explosive, divinity-fueled uprising.
Bennett turns the clock forward a few years for book two, and as a result, City of Blades operates less as a direct sequel and more as a standalone adventure set in the same world—though you’ll certainly meet a handful of familiar faces, along with plenty of new ones—human or otherwise.
Our capable lead is Turyin Mulaghesh, general fourth class of the Saypuri military. Mulaghesh, you may recall, was a key supporting player in the hectic events of the first book; here, she takes center stage. While her from her noble, self-sacrificing past deeds seem to have defined her character, Bennett digs deeper into her dark past (including evil done in the name of warfare), and her personal journey brings some better-left-forgotten wreckage to the churning surface.
Her impending peaceful retirement—mere months away—is interrupted by an urgent order from the Saypuri Prime Minister (another familiar face). It seems the security of Mulaghesh’s pension isn’t quite cut-and-dried, and her obligations to the military forces her to travel to the distant continental port city of Voortyashtan to investigate a missing governmental agent.
An uneventful trip wouldn’t make for much a story, so Bennett stacks a shifting array of obstacles in her way, leading Mulaghesh to what becomes a frantic avert-the-apocalypse mission spanning her world and, well, somewhere else. Somewhere very bad. And that’s on top of a harbor full of statues that may be divinity-infused, a mysterious Voortyashtan ore with arcane powers, and the sword-wielding spectral warriors disemboweling the local populace.
Readers of City of Stairs will likely have one burning question: where the hells is Sigrud in all of this? The towering land mass of a bodygard was the ultimate scene stealer in the first book, serving as the faithful hired muscle who never met a giant monster he wouldn’t take on single-handedly. This installment really makes you wait for return of the Viking-esque Dreyling assassin, but when he finally shows, his initial appearance is a hoot-and-a-half. While the preceeding five years have brought about some big changes for the brute, when the going gets rough, it doesn’t take long for him to Hulk out. And it does get rough.
Sigrud’s daughter Signe is a pivotal new central character. She might not be the relentless killing machine her dad is, but as the driven head of the massive harbor reconstruction project in Voortyashtan, she uncovers underwater secrets that may serve as a catalyst for armageddon. When she meets Mulaghesh, the pair develops an oil-and-water working relationship that, compounded with Signe’s big-time daddy issues (apparently it’s not easy growing up with a barely restrained killing machine as your pop), leaves plenty of room for witty and revelatory turmoil that plays nicely alongside the search for the missing agent, and that whole “end-of-the-world” thing.
There is a deep, intricately constructed universe at play in this series—richly detailed history, theology, magic, war, conflict—and Bennett’s gritty world-building is remarkable, wonderful stuff. The characters are well-textured and multifaceted, each struggling to make sense of impossible things. I haven’t enjoyed visiting a world and spending time with characters this much since I logged some serious time in Bas-Lag. I can’t wait for more.