City of Stairs is a hard act to follow. If you haven’t read it, you should, and not just because it introduced all the important characters and structures you’ll need to understand the basics of the sequel. The world of the Divine Cities is a fascinating look at empire, colonialism, and religion all in one go. For some hundreds of years, it had been dominated by the Continent, a world of Divinities whose miracles gave mortals power over the world. Rebellious island colony Saypur, robbed of miraculous ability, made use of ordinary technology in order to rise up and crush their masters. Saypur is now the colonial power, and must wrestle with its own politics and development, even as it handles the consequences of killing off actual gods.
The most significant of those effects was the Blink, which in the first book resulted in a strange and twisted city, its fractured reality resulting in half-formed buildings, roads that go nowhere or anywhere, and staircases leading up into nothing. The setting is at times reminiscent of China Miéville’s City and the City, but with added gods. Bennett has a light touch, his writing is brilliant, and has a talent for characters that can develop their own independent fan-base.
Both books revolve around solving a mystery. In the first, a murder, and in this second, a disappearance. City of Blades moves its action to the coast, to the ragged city of Voortyashtan, taking with it Turyin Mulaghesh, the raspy general who provided military support in City of Stairs. Shara Komayd, now Prime Minister of Saypur, sends her on a secret mission to find out what has happened to a ministry operative, and to investigate activities in the city as it faces rapid development by a corporation under the flag of the newly-formed United Dreyling States.
Fans of the previous book will be excited to learn that Sigrud has a starring role. This is a risky move, since Sigrud is one of those characters whose draw is their mystery, and adding background can spoil some of that. Bennett handles this well, and readers will appreciate knowing a little more about the man who was so impressive in the first book. Mulaghesh makes for a fantastic lead, and I can imagine her played very well by Shohreh Aghdashloo (Avasarala in the TV series, The Expanse) in an adaptation. She is as grumpy and brittle as ever, but carries the bigger themes of the book excellently.
The book deals in most part with the atrocities of war, how conquering nations manage the consequences and history of these atrocities, and the people who take part in them. It is sensitively done, especially as the Divinity at the heart of this is the God of War. This is easily a read-in-one-sitting novel. The follow-up is due out in April, so fans do not have long to wait for the next instalment either. Given the quality of the sequel, I am very curious to see what Bennett does next.