Book Review: 'City Of Miracles,' By Robert Jackson BennettAs Robert Jackson Bennett's Divine Cities series draws to a close, grizzled old enforcer Sigrud — in hiding, in a remote forest — returns to the city to avenge the murder of his friend and partner.
"What an ugly thing I am," he thinks. "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?"
That is Sigrud je Harkvaldsson feeling sorry for himself. Sigrud, the one-eyed murder machine who always lurked around the dark, ragged edges of Robert Jackson Bennett's Divine Cities books. Who stole every scene he was in. Who showed up as the near-silent secretary and enforcer for politician and intelligence operative Shara Komayd in the first book, City of Stairs, and immediately straightened my spine.
Who is this guy? I asked myself. And why hasn't he been in every book I've ever read?
Without a doubt, Sigrud is Bennett's best invention. But that line is spoken (well, thought) by Sigrud as an old man — 20 years gone from the adventures of the last book, City of Blades, and something like 40 from the events of the first. It is Sigrud in the wilderness (literally), hiding out as a simple-minded logger in the deep forests as the final book in the trilogy, City of Miracles, opens,because he is wanted by pretty much every government in existence for all the aforementioned ugliness he has wrought. It is Sigrud thoughtful. Regretful. Tired. He has been out of action for a very long time, but now he has a purpose again, because Shara — his mentor, employer, partner and friend — has been assassinated. And Sigrud wants revenge.
Which, yes, could have been so dull and stupid. Because of all the tropes in the trope-rack, the old "retired soldier goes out on one last mission" story is among the hoariest there is.
But really, there is no other story that could've been told here because Sigrud is a single-use object. He's the thing you pull out when you want things to catch fire, blow up or crash into each other; the tool you use when you want everything to end up bloody. This was how Shara used him when they worked together and it is how Bennett has used him over the course of 600-some pages already.
Only Bennett, as a writer, is no slouch. He knows what he's doing here, and with a skillful bit of author-judo, he both embraces the ridiculous Sigrud SMASH!!! simplicity of what he's setting up — and then turns it on its head by making Sigrud unflinchingly aware of what he's doing. He knows what he is. He is murder on two legs. But he is ... resigned to it. "What a crime it is that creatures of hope and justice fade from this world," he says, "while those like me live on."
Sigrud aside, the other thing I have always loved about Bennett's Divine Cities books is the worldbuilding. His universe is one of brilliant juxtaposition — this fantasy world that is literally stitched together by the magical hoodoo of gods called Divinities, but which is not wholly dependent on them. It is a world in flux, making the violent transition from mythology to technology, where the gods who work the miracles have been killed or vanished, leaving plain old mortals to wallow around in their absence.
The complication is, those Divinities haven't gone completely, and so Bennett's books become a place where a god, a gun, a telephone and a plow horse can all exist comfortably on the same page, in the same sentence. It is this world that has driven the action in this trilogy, the push and pull of spies and generals and gods and bureaucrats all dancing because the intrinsic entropy of Bennett's universe demands it.
So yes, City of Miracles is all about Sigrud and his rage. But it's also about the cyclical nature of violence, of destruction and rebirth, and the kind of scars that get passed down, generation by generation. Sigrud, exhausted by marvels, is the eyes of Bennett's story, the reader surrogate. But as his seemingly simple last mission grows more complicated by degrees — the living, changing, unstable mix of magic and modernity that Bennett has so carefully created growing even stranger and more dangerous — he becomes our wonder as well. And our regret as we see the consequences of years of terrible mistakes.
Because Bennett has advanced the timeline so far over the course of three books, this finale takes on a generational feel. Old friends re-appear. The children have children now. Everyone has grown old in the interim except, maybe, Sigrud himself. And as ancient powers clash among gleaming, modern skyscrapers, those who have survived from the first page to these last have a heaviness about them — a sense that they have seen remarkable things, done deeds both heroic and terrible, and that they can see a far and final horizon in the distance, quickly approaching.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, videogames, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic atPhiladelphiamagazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.