This is the third book of a trilogy. It’s loosely connected to events in the second book, and is a direct sequel to the first book, and to those of you who haven’t read either of them, I’m going to try really hard not to spoil anything from the series as a whole.
The Divine Cities novels have become one of my favorite ongoing series, and I consider them doubly impressive for having not been planned as a series. City of Stairs was a great standalone that got expanded into the foundation for further stories, and I think it’s a testament to the author’s skill that he was able to go back and retroactively turn one-offs from that first novel into foreshadowing for future books. It’s like the inverse of the usual tragic genre tale of the author who ends up sucked into an endless, plodding doorstopper machine and starts churning out books where the cast of characters you once loved now spend 600 pages walking three miles to pad space between the “event” stories.
I digress, though. I like the Divine Cities because they present a world that isn’t heavily rooted in any real world mythology, but takes disparate elements of pantheons from Hindu, Slavic and a variety of other stories and uses them to craft a surprisingly delicate tale about colonialism, revenge, family and more.
If City of Stairs was about the ethical fallout of a successful coup and just how far the once-oppressed could push things before they became actual oppressors (can you be morally justified in wiping out another culture if that very culture contained actual magical spells and miracles that once wiped out your people by the thousands and could do so in the future?), and City of Blades dealt with what amounts to veterans of a literal holy war left with no support after their god has been slain and their afterlife sucked into oblivion, City of Miracles is about children and different kinds of familial ties.
Something I like about the world of this series is that it is actually allowed to advance. Stairs presented a world that had elements of late 19th and early 20th century technology and cultural baggage, and by the time of this third book we have a roaring 1930s-40s metropolis and a place where technology has nearly outpaced the miraculous magic that once shaped the world. The City of Stairs itself feels much less impressive and downright dull compared to a place of gleaming skyscrapers and air-trams. You don’t see magic in direct competition with it, but attempting to coexist with it, which is a nice break from the everpresent fantasy versus technology that dominates much of the genre.
Speaking of nice breaks from the norm, something I love about these books is that the protagonists are very rarely good at fighting. You’ve got a cast of the young and inexperienced or the old and aching. Even in this book, arguably the one with the most battle-hardened protagonist of the lot, most of the fights are handled cleverly. There’s not bareknuckle brawling, there’s a lot of setting traps, creeping around, playing the odds, and bemoaning that the best laid plans often end with something blowing up and hoping that the shrapnel doesn’t fly the wrong way.
I think my only complaint about the book is that it’s so action-heavy compared to the prior mysteries. It’s filtered through the lens of someone who solves his problems through violence, and that makes the writing rather blunt and brutal. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I still enjoyed it, but it was a bit of a departure from the more measured investigations of the first two novels. That’s not to say he’s some kind of berserker, it’s just that his particular skillset is lacking what added tension to the struggles of his predecessors. Even with that niggling issue, it pays off in the end with a series of rapid-fire revelations that make me certain I’ll enjoy it much more on re-reads. Hell, it makes me want to re-read the entire trilogy from start to finish and see what other foreshadowing I can find, which is pretty damn good for a novel that was the result of the author’s agent essentially talking him into continuing within the setting when he’d only planned out one book set there to begin with.
It’s the kind of trilogy where I’m perfectly okay with it ending where it ended, but I wouldn’t feel like he was trying to milk it dry if he continued with another few books. The cool thing about tackling elements of classical mythology from the angle of “what if the gods got brutally murdered a few generations back” is that there are so many of those elements floating around to experiment with. We’ve seen magical beasts, afterlives, covenants, demigods and more, and there’s a boundless expanse to continue mining before you ever start to repeat the same themes.