City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett
Published May 2, 2017
Thirteen years after City of Blades, wanted Dreyling Sigrud is in hiding, moving from job to job while hoping to hear from the one person who can bring him back to civilization. When he gets word of her assassination instead, Sigrud, a man with nothing left to lose, sets out on one last mission to take his revenge. Yet discovering the truth about her death pulls Sigrud into a secret, decades long-war and a facedown with an angry young god.
When I first learned that there would be a final book in the Divine Cities series and that Sigrud, a side character in the previous novels, would be the protagonist, I was thrilled. Introduced in City of Stairs derogatorily as Saypuri spy Shara’s pet Dreyling thug, Sigrud has always been a character I loved. Although he often plays the role of the muscle, Sigrud is a character with hidden depths. More intelligent than he appears to be, he also feels deeply, and is fiercely loyal to Shara.
There are a lot of things about Sigrud as the main character that make sense, and to some extent they work. He is likable, and, as a character with nothing to lose, is an ideal choice for a likely suicide mission of revenge against the murderers of an old friend in this third volume, which is closer to an action thriller than a fantasy novel at times. However, I also think City of Miracles loses something by placing him at the forefront.
The previous book protagonists have been Shara, the WoC spy who remembers almost everything she reads and has a great love of history, and Turyin Mulaghesh, a middle-aged, disabled, WoC soldier, who swears like it’s going out of style. Putting these unique, well-rounded women, who are two of my favourite book characters of all-time, in the leading roles, was part of what set this series apart. Both characters have minor roles in this book, and there are other interesting female characters in Tatyana, Ivanya, and Malwina, but with Sigrud as the protagonist, City of Miracles is initially the story of a Viking-like berserker grieving and vowing revenge on the people who murdered his friend. In other words, it feels stale, like something I’ve read or watched before. The story does expand and there is more to it than that, especially in Bennett’s capable hands, but the premise comes across as disappointing in comparison to what the author has already achieved in his previous novels.
The final installment of the Divine Cities trilogy ultimately has a lot to offer though. One of the things that first attracted me to this series was that it’s not a medieval or even 1800s set Western Europe-inspired fantasy world, but a world that’s draws inspiration from Southeast Asia (Saypur) and Eastern Europe (The Continent). Dealing with themes of colonialism and discrimination, this world is closer to our twentieth century than to medieval times. The robust world-building that has been a strength of Bennett’s continues in City of Miracles, with magic and myth giving way as the forward march of technology brings widespread use of the automobile and phones, as well as new inventions, such as express trains, and even skyscrapers, to Saypur.
Seen through the eyes of Sigrud, who has been removed from the world by necessity for the last thirteen years, the changes are all the more startling. I am part of a generation that has lived through some of the most rapid technological growth. We remember when Internet was dial-up and limited to 100 hours a month shared among a family of four and we remember a time before Microsoft Windows. Sometimes the rapid changes in technology just in my lifetime take my breath away, so I understood both the excitement of young Taty as she sees the possibility of the vibrant city for the first time, and the weariness of Sigrud who feels the weight of change keenly.
“Change is a slow flower to bloom. Most of us will not see its full radiance. We plant it not for ourselves, but for future generations. But it is worth tending to. Oh, it is so terribly worth tending to.” – Shara Komayd, City of Miracles
The character development is also strong here. This is a story of Sigrud coming to terms with what he’s capable of, including confronting the truth about what he did at the end of City of Blades, and having, in some ways, a second chance at fatherhood as he protects Shara’s adopted daughter Tatyana from harm. Being in Sigrud’s mind gives the reader a deeper sense of his complex emotions, from the wrath that sometimes overtakes him, and his enduring grief over the loss of Signe, to his enduring self-loathing as he thinks, “What an ugly thing I am. Why did I ever believe I could wreak anything but ugliness in this world? Why did I ever think that those near me would meet anything but pain and death?” Initially this comes across a little self-pitying and tiresome, but his conscious efforts to shape Tatyana differently and not let her make his mistakes, give Sigrud an avenue of growth and the book benefits from this increasing self-awareness.
Most importantly, City of Miracles brings the Divine Cities trilogy to a fitting conclusion. The final scenes provide the characters and the reader, with closure, and do so through passages that are beautifully written and extremely moving. Without giving too much away, I found the end reminiscent of Les Miserables (I think I half expected Signe and Shara to appear and sing!) and was glad that after this wild ride of a third book the characters are finally granted a chance at peace. Although I didn’t find City of Miracles to be as strong as the previous books in the series, due in large part to the fact that Sigrud lacks some of the depth and originality of Bennett’s previous protagonists, I still very much enjoyed it and especially the final scenes of the book. I look forward to reading whatever Robert Jackson Bennett decides to write next, because with this series he has won a devoted fan for life!