The Divine Cities Trilogy by Robert Jackson Bennett (The Divine Cities trilogy #1 - #3)

It’s a rare occasion when I’m introduced to a new author and completely floored by their talents. This is one of those occasions.

Robert Jackson Bennett has had a prolific career over the past decade: a two-time winner of the Shirley Jackson award for Best Novel, and various nominations for the Locus, World Fantasy, British Fantasy, and Hugo Awards. Although I’ve been familiar with his presence in the fantasy community, I wasn’t exposed to any of his work until I picked up City of Stairs a couple of weeks ago.

I won’t make that mistake again.

The Divine Cities trilogy is an unforgettable series that has propelled Bennett’s books into “insta-buy” status for all his future works.

This is the first time I’m combining multiple books into one review, so I’ll briefly explain the premise of the series, then talk a bit about each entry, some overall themes, and finally some takeaways.

For centuries, the Continent was the central hub of the world. It was the only land where gods lived, and their countless miracles helped shape new realities and religions across the land. Meanwhile, across the sea, the residents of Saypura are treated like second-class citizens and been under the control of the Continentals for centuries. While the Saypurans could not reap the benefits of having gods on their land, they tried to make up for their lack of miraculous events by developing their technology at an exponential rate. Sixty years ago, a Saypuran discovered a way to invade the Continent, kill their gods, and free his countrymen. But when the gods were destroyed, most of their miracles were thrown into disarray: realities were bent, cities crumbled, and the laws of physics became unreliable. This allowed the Saypurans to escape their enslavement and take control of the decimated Continent. The Saypurans then outlawed any mention of the past gods, and now use their technological prowess to prevent the Continentals from gathering and rebelling.

This setting is immediately appealing as it shows how two neighboring countries have a long-simmering feud, with each experiencing the role of ruling and being ruled by the other. I was reminded of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana when discovering that the Saypurans were not letting the Continentals access records of their own history, thus stealing away part of their identity. There is a simmering hatred and resentment that infests the politics, religious freedoms, trade routes, and military presence between the two nations.

As City of Stairs begins, Shara, a Saypuran investigator, is sent to the Continent to find a fellow Saypuran scholar who was murdered while researching Continental theology. Shara travels with her secretary and bodyguard, a skilled Nordic-like Dreymar named Sigrud, who is exceptionally gifted at getting his hands dirty. The book takes on the tone of a police procedural, and shares interesting revelations and world-building exposition through natural, unforced conversations. There is also a high level of intrigue, and the book asks intelligent questions that may or may not be solved over the long term.

City of Blades can best be described as a military fantasy mystery, and one of my favorite supporting cast members from the previous book is thrust into the spotlight. Mulaghesh is a world-weary but noble Saypuran army captain who is sent to a remote region of the Continent to track down a missing Saypuran foreign affairs agent. This agent has discovered a buried substance of great importance that is somehow linked to the miracles of the dead gods, and it could have huge implications on the economic development of the Continent at large. There is also a substantial time jump in the story, picking up nearly a decade after City of Stairs ends. Some major characters return, while others are absent from the narrative. Like City of Stairs, City of Blades utilizes the first half of the book in solving a mystery. The cast expands, the lore deepens, and the stakes are raised. While this book was my least favorite of the three, it also presents one of the trilogy’s strongest traits: nearly all the minor characters are given depth and agency, reinforcing the feeling that the world doesn’t just revolve around the actions of our main cast. However, in a couple of instances it felt like Bennett was bending his own rules to fit the story he was telling, giving me the sense that he was retconning the rules of his world for the narrative to make sense.

While the first two books are a slow burn, City of Miracles explodes right out of the gate. My pulse was pounding by the end of the first chapter, and it became immediately apparent that Bennett was saving his best for last. A great many mysteries are brought to light as we learn more about the Divine, their true intentions, what provokes and influences them, and what their legacies are after they are gone. I won’t go into any plot details, but I will say that City of Miracles is a story about reflecting on the difficult choices one makes, and if it is ever possible to find redemption. It is an emotionally complex and deeply satisfying conclusion to one of the best trilogies I’ve ever read.

A few thoughts on the series as a whole:

-        The Continent felt Slavic, Saypura felt like a proxy for India, and the Dreymar people were clearly influenced by Scandanavia. I briefly researched the history of these regions to see if there were any direct correlations with the events in the books, but came up empty. If some of these events are based in fact, please send me a note to let me know!

-        It was refreshing to follow characters who start in the mid-to-late 30’s and age into their 50’s and 60’s by the end of the third book. The conversations, relationships, and interactions are mature and thoughtful, reflecting the wisdom that comes with those extra years of experience.

-        Another refreshing aspect was how the story never felt the need to rely on action scenes to keep the pace moving. The action scenes were used sparingly, but when they do arrive, they are massively entertaining. Let me emphasize this again: massively entertaining.

-        This series addresses many different types of conflict, and it does not dally or overstay its welcome before its answers are presented. It is an incredibly satisfying read. There’s also more than a fair share of solid humor sprinkled throughout.

-        There’s equal representation of the sexes without calling attention to itself. Sexism simply did not exist in any aspect of the story. Many of the power positions (judges, foreign affairs agents, political leaders, etc.) were women, while many men took on the roles of assistants and secretaries. It was never pointed out, it was just the way it was.

-        All three books were written in the present tense. It took some getting used to, but quickly became a non-factor in the enjoyment of the story.

-        The word “magic” is never used. Miracles exist because of the Divine. Anything with supernatural, reality-bending traits stems from Divine influence.

-        The relationship between Sigrud and Shara was a joy to read. They are so close, and all pretenses are absent from their conversations. You can tell that they’ve worked together for decades and see each other’s true selves. The familiarity and maturity of their affection is realistic and appealing. Bennett is gifted at showcasing the many raw emotions on display in this series: affection, instability, remorse, self-hatred, loyalty.

The Divine Cities trilogy is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It treats its audience with the same respect and consideration as it shares with its cast. It is a rich, lovingly-crafted world that is both thematically complex and wonderfully entertaining. Shara, Mulaghesh and Sigrud have all been ensconced in my personal Fictional Character Hall of Fame, and I will miss them dearly. If you’re looking to discover something new, something original, and something memorable, then this is the series you’re looking for.

10/10 An emotionally complex and deeply satisfying trilogy with characters that I will dearly miss.

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