It is a rare occasion that a middle book makes it into my favourites shelf, and to think I've almost decided to put aside reading The Divine Cities. Then again, City of Blades does not feel like a middle book because the previous story in City of Stairs is self-contained and had its resolution. By now, it appears to me that each book is like a stand-alone in a series with a fairly significant time-jump in between. The political landscape has progressed, and the characters whom we have met in the earlier book have moved on with their lives.
What made the sequel work so well for me is that the main character dominating the narrative is not someone new but one who I am already invested in from the first book. Mulaghesh, the embittered ex-general has been persuaded to perform one last operative, purportedly to serve out her incomplete tenure to earn the full pension payouts of her position. When I first picked up City of Blades, I wondered how I would take to having Mulaghesh as the main POV in this volume. As much as I enjoyed her parts in the earlier one, I was not certain having her dominate the narrative will work for me.
Truth be told, in short order, I loved it! Bennett brought something different to the table by giving us the perspective of a much more mature character in Mulaghesh. From an hyper-intelligent political spy moving to the peak of her career to an accomplished, steadfast but tired ex-soldier who reluctantly comes out of her secluded retirement, I am yet again astounded with the stellar characterisation in these books.
Mulaghesh shares a common trait with Shara, and that is the dogged determination to get things done, and done right because she cares. However, while Shara is a scholar with more knowledge of the Divine than most people do, Mulaghesh does not have that advantage. As she delves into the mystery of the missing ministry operative, Mulaghesh uncovers unsettling and portent signs of that which cannot be explained, or in other words, Miracles. A disturbingly dark past event in her life - one Mulaghesh prefers to keep buried and forgotten - is brought squarely into focus in a former Divine city of the goddess of war and death, Voortya. Mulaghesh is still a highly competent and tough fighter in her 50's and her point-in-view is so engaging because her demeanour belies what she truly is on the inside. Perhaps I can use the analogy of crusty bread - a hard and thin outer layer protecting a soft fluffy centre (I wouldn't let her hear me call her fluffy though).
And this is why I believe that Bennett is such an incredible author. Mulaghesh didn't just miraculously appear as a character in City of Blades just because she was the perfect choice to carry off the book's gritty commentary on war and death, and what it means to be a soldier. Her introduction in the City of Stairs showed who Mulaghesh is as a person; we can appreciate her concern and care for the soldiers and people under her watch. And who she is, plays a very crucial role in the culmination of the plot in this book.
"This is the service, and we soldiers are servants. Sure, when people think of a soldier, they think of soldiers taking. They think of us taking territory, taking the enemy, taking a city or a country, taking treasure, or blood. This grand, abstract idea of ‘taking,' as if we were pirates, swaggering and brandishing our weapons, bullying and intimidating people. But a soldier, a true soldier, I think, does not take. A soldier gives."
As much as I was already enjoying the book right from the start, I was thrilled when Sigrud finally made his appearance. Without a doubt, the most badass scene belonged to him yet again, but that's not all there is to this intimidating man. I don't want to spoil anything except to say that the character development in Sigrud is taken to another level by the end of this book and it was quite a hard-hitting one.
Main characters cannot stand on their own and to fully expand on their characterisation, the supporting ones need to be equally and empathically developed. Suffice to say that it is the manner in which these side characters bring out the nuances of Mulaghesh's and Sigrud's personalities which made our main characters so compelling. And a crucible of violence, death and unrelenting grief pushes their boundaries to the limits.
The rich, vivid and evocative worldbuilding continues to fascinate me to no end. Through the perspective of Mulaghesh, we see how the Blink altered another Divine city. The juxtaposition of the Miracles and the mundane result in the most surreal and bizarre outcomes as the magic fails when the Divinities die.
I also absolutely adore mystery plots that are rooted in lore, religion and mythology. Just in this one book, I was treated to an absorbing mystery of my favourite kind, 'real' characters which I feel so much for, a world and its lore which I cannot get enough of, and loads of thought-provoking passages that highlight allegorical themes so relevant to our real world.
Deserve. How preoccupied we are with that. With what we should have, with what we are owed. I wonder if any word has ever caused more heartache.
Divine Cities is shaping up to be one of my favourite series with its exceptional characters, captivating stories, lush worldbuilding and impeccable writing in a genre-defying narrative. I am craving for more and hope that the final book, City of Miracles, will live up to this fantastic sequel.