The Divine Cities Trilogy by Robert Jackson Bennett
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.
This The Divine Cities Trilogy book review was written by Adam Weller
All reviews for: The Divine Cities trilogy
The Divine Cities Trilogy
The Divine Cities trilogy #1 - #3
A special omnibus edition, collecting all three books of Robert Jackson Bennett’s acclaimed Divine Cities trilogy in a single volume. &nbs...
Have you read The Divine Cities Trilogy?
We've found that while readers like to know what we think of a book they find additional reader reviews a massive help in deciding if it is the right book for them. So if you have a spare moment, please tell us your thoughts by writing a reader's review. Thank you.
The Divine Cities Trilogy reader reviews
9.5/10 from 1 reviews
There are currently no reader reviews for this book. Why not be the first?
Write a reader review
Thank you for taking the time to write a review on this book, it really makes a difference and helps readers to find their perfect book.
More recommended reading in this genre
A Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen
Bled dry by interminable warfare, infighting and bloody confrontations with Lord Anomander Rake and his Tiste Andii, the vast, sprawling Malazan empire simmers with discont...
Chronicles of the Black Company
Darkness wars with darkness as the hard-bitten men of the Black Company take their pay and do what they must. They bury their doubts with their dead. Then comes the prophec...
On the world of Kuf, the Macht are a mystery, a seldom-seen people of extraordinary ferocity and discipline whose prowess on the battlefield is the stuff of legend. For cen...
Shadow Ops series
Army Officer. Fugitive. Sorcerer. Across the country and in every nation, people are waking up with magical talents. Untrained and panicked, they summon storms, raise the d...
The Great Reawakening has left Latent people with a stark choice: either use their newfound magical powers in the service of the government, or choose the path of the Selfe...
The Rigante Novels
Born in the storm that doomed his father, Connavar grows to manhood among the mist-covered mountains of Caer Druagh, where the Rigante tribe dwell in harmony with the land ...
The First Law
Inquisitor Glokta, a crippled and increasingly bitter relic of the last war, former fencing champion turned torturer extraordinaire, is trapped in a twisted and broken body...
The Ascendants of Estorea
The Estorean Conquord has stood for 850 years. Its Advocate, Herine Del Aglios, knows that she presides over the greatest civilisation in history. But she wants more. And i...
The Drenai Novels
The Legend Druss, Captain of the Axe: the stories of his life were told everywhere. Instead of the wealth and fame he could have claimed, he had chosen a mountain lair, hig...
Great fantasy books published in 2018
"A bold and subversive retelling of the goddess's story," this #1 New York Times bestseller is "both epic and intimate in its scop...
Age of War
Michael J Sullivan
The alliance of humans and renegade Fhrey is fragile - and about to be tested as never before. Persephone keeps the human clans from turning on one another through her iron...
Legion: Lies of the Beholder
Stephen Leeds, also known as 'Legion', has a unique mental condition. He can become an expert on any subject in hours... and with every new area of expertise a new ...
A Veil of Spears
The Night of Endless Swords nearly saw the destruction of Sharakhai, and since then the Kings have come down hard on the rebelloious Moonless Host. Hundreds have been murde...
The Ember Blade
A land under occupation. A legendary sword. A young man’s journey to find his destiny.Aren has lived by the rules all his life. He’s never questione...
Fire and Blood
George RR Martin
From the masterly imagination behind A Game of Thrones - one of the greatest fantasy epics of all time and an unmissable HBO hit series - comes a definitive history of West...
In Mystic Class Nona Grey begins to learn the secrets of the universe. But so often even the deepest truths just make our choices harder. Before she leaves the Convent of S...
Iron and Magic
Hugh d’Ambray, Preceptor of the Iron Dogs, Warlord of the Builder of Towers, served only one man. Now his immortal, nearly omnipotent master has cast him aside. Hugh ...
The Fall of Gondolin
In the Tale of The Fall of Gondolin are two of the greatest powers in the world. There is Morgoth of the uttermost evil, unseen in this story but ruling over a vast militar...
Looking for more suggestions? Try these pages: