Sudden or Inevitable, but not Both
There are some fantasy readers who just want swords and sorcery. And there are others who’ve read so much of that, and dwarves and elves and dragons and knights, that we appreciate attempts to do something new, to push the genre in different ways. Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities is good at this: deicide in an age of motorized vehicles, spies and military generals versus supernatural enemies, unmagical main characters, Kafka-esque bureaucracy and dry, modern humor all set his books apart from the run of the mill.
In City of Blades, the second of the series, he also tries to get us away from the hero’s journey trope we find so often in fantasy, telling what’s essential a political mystery story (think Hunt for Red October) in a fantasy setting—or post-fantasy, you might call this, as the gods are dead. Only they’re not, really, which would be a cool reveal—except we saw it in the last book, and the mystery in this book depends on kind of forgetting that.
Before we get into it, a few kudos: Bennett is a talented writer, and the prose and pacing draw you through the story regardless of whether the mystery really mystifies. He also has a knack for vibrant, unique characters, and for me they were the best part of the book.
They didn’t manage to overcome its main flaw, though, which is that the driving interest of the story is a whodunit (on a grand political and divine scale), but we’re fed too much information to ever be surprised by the revelations the characters make. Instead of Wash’s ‘sudden but inevitable betrayal,’ the reveals just feel inevitable, which doesn’t make for good mystery reading. Without the curiosity, the struggle to stay just one step ahead of the detective (in this case an unhappily-retired military general), the story loses its drive, and I ended up frustrated sometimes that the characters weren’t seeing what Bennett made so obvious.
On the other end of Wash’s spectrum, there are some sudden but far from inevitable moments that felt, well, deus ex machina—unexplained visions, gods rising from the seas, etc.—that could have been great with a little foreshadowing, but instead feel highly coincidental in terms of the main character gaining needed clues to solve the mystery.
All this to say City of Blades is not for everyone. For long-time fantasy readers looking to break out of the tropes, or lovers of City of Stairs wanting to return to the world with not that many changes, the book will work well. It’s also some great prose—but if you’re looking to be pulled into a surprising plot, an intriguing mystery, or an action-packed page turner, you may want to stick to your guns—er, swords.