A string of fantastic (see what I did there?) books got me thinking about how much fantasy has evolved since I first started combing library shelves for it more than fifty years ago. Thirty years ago, the word ‘fantasy’ evoked some kind of Tolkienian offshoot, usually a quest fantasy modeled on Campbell’s hero theory, with a sidestep to humans battling the Sidhe. Before that, anything fantastic besides Arthuriana was rare outside the kids’ shelves.
The type I like best is epic—yeah, which is difficult to define. In her recent publication, the Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn gives us some possible categories for purposes of discussion—she rejects the word ‘definition’—beginning with the portal-quest fantasy, the most identifiable form, which is of course the fantasic entered from our world. Then there is the immersive fantasy, which draws the reader to not only share a world, but a set of assumptions. The intrusion fantasy is what she calls the “bringer of chaos,” or the unexplained irruption of the weird into what we thought was safety. The liminal fantasy is what she calls the rarest: the reader is invited to cross into the fantastic, but chooses not to, so the fantastic leaks back into our world.
I think epic fantasy—the way I see it—can partake of all these, but I see Robert Jackson Bennett’s two novels closer to the liminal model than any other. More about them in a bit.
First, I want to look at the dramatic explosion of fantasy over my lifetime. When I was young, the few I found outside of kids’ books seemed to share a sly, rather coy, agreement between narrative voice and reader that, just for the length of the book, we weren’t going to be proper adults. Then along came Tolkien with his unrepentant subcreative eucatastrophe—which, at least for me, was like coming home to the world I’d always sought.
It was dazzling to find peers who thought so, too. One thing we all shared was a sense of being beleagured by the literature of the mundane, and those who insisted it was the only literature worth consideration. Fantasy and science fiction were for pencil-neck weirdos.
Why have SF and fantasy gone from the laughable propeller-beanie and elf ears splinter group to mainstream entertainment?
Why are sf and fantasy so satisfying?
I love a story in which I can ride along with the heroes who gain agency, whose efforts matter, especially in exciting times. But I can get that from thrillers and mystery movels. The fantasy and SF that grabbed me tossed me into an exciting world where characters and cosmos are once again intimately linked, a world where moral choice is again meaningful.
Good and evil in most sf and fantasy now is more than white hats and black. Both are embedded in the deepest processes of the imaginary universe itself, giving us a chance to explore our cultural and social ethic, perhaps shot through with irruptions of the unexplainable; it gives our imaginations a chance to look past the arid boundaries of meaninglessness, and resynthesize science with our ever-evolving moral paradigm.
Our minds are real things, knowing real things, and SF and fantasy give me compelling fiction that arcs out from perceived limits into deep union with other minds and with nature; these stories satisfy, I think, because they strike deeply into our central myths about ourselves, myths that explore the edifices shaping the human psyche.
So now I want to talk about Robert Jackson Bennett’s two books in his Divine Cities saga, City of Stairs and City of Blades, which got me going on this mental quest.
I think readers could begin with the second book, which just came out a couple months ago, but for maximum enjoyment, I recommend grabbing City of Stairs, in which an intelligence agent in the guise of Shara Thivani, Cultural Ambassador, is sent to Bulikov, the eponymous City of Stairs, to investigate the death of a historian sent there earlier to catalogue the otherwise forbidden history of the area, conquered 75 years ago by Saypur.
The nation of Saypur, despised by everyone, had once been the conquered, the underclass workers, its inhabitants small and brown. Now they are the conquerors and have have imposed their laws on the Continent, forbidding not only religious practice but even any study of history, which is inextricably tied up with religion, and knowledge of which keeps the people from being brought into the modern age with all its benefits.
Shara immediately sustains setbacks, but she has her own resources, including a massive one-eyed secretary-slash-bodyguard named Sigrud who really enjoys his work. If so impassive a being can be said to enjoy anything.
Shara is aided by the local polis, or governor, foul-mouthed Colonel Mulaghesh, a straight-forward woman whose every cell is military, and who loathes politics. Shara is also met by an important figure from her school days, who knows who she really is—and who may be an aid . . . or not.
How the mystery widens, delving us deep into Continental history, both human and divine, is absorbingly played out, veined with gold-bright humor. Gradually the weirdness, and the stakes, intensify to white heat, but we never lose sight of the characters, whose own emotional twists and turns, action and reaction—growth and change— keep them firmly stage center even when the narrative is shot through with a gleam of the numinous.
Bennett’s prose is crisp, vivid, playful, awe-inspiring when needful, terrifying at times. The angst is earned, with a total lack of easy sentiment even at the breakneck pace of the endgame. In that, Bennett gave me that rarity, a monster fight in which I was glued to every word: usually I skip those as the story tends to stop while we get pages of muscle-popping splashes of gore, then the story picks up again after either the monster wins against the redshirt or our hero wins against the monster— either one effectively unchanged as the quest goes on.
The monster fight here is one of the most profoundly effective, and tense, passages in this book.
Nothing is at it first seems, and though there is a most satisfying resolution, I closed the book feeling a sense of mystery still beyond reach that I seldom get in most epic fantasy, a breathtaking and exhilarating feeling. Great female characters and an embracing sense of diversity made this an especially cherished read.
So it was time for book two.
“I was taught that peace is the absence of war. But I wonder if these days we’ve simply replaced conventional war with a war of paper. I’m not so sure which is better.”
City of Blades is structurally similar to City of Stairs: we get an outside agent sent to a hellish locale to solve the mystery of a missing person (in the first book, a death, in the second, no one knows what happened to the agent), meeting people from their past as well as new people, everyone with secrets that get peeled away one by one as the stakes accelerate.
But there the similarities end.
To say that City of Stairs is about anti-colonialism and City of Blades is about war is like saying the Sistine Chapel is about paint-smeared plaster, or Hamlet is about kings. Yeah, both those elements are fundamental—vital—but so much else is going on.
For one thing, both books deal with religion, specifically dead gods, whose powers were real, warping reality beyond comprehension for the practical, religion-banning Saypuri. This is not paper-thin religion, there just to be vanquished by the triumph of modern thought: assumptions are overturned, sometimes at terrible cost, leaving human beings grasping for understanding.
But deep in the heart of City of Blades is the soldier, who belongs to the state, who might join up for any number of high minded reasons, but who is trained in the ways of violence. And that has its cost.
“The word everyone forgets,” says Mulaghesh, “is ‘serve.’ . . . 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. 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, does not take. A soldier gives.”
“Anything,” says Mulaghesh. “Everything, if asked of us. We are servants, as I said.”
I enjoyed all the characters in City of Stairs, but my favorite was the squint-eyed, foul-mouthed, cheroot-smoking career military Turyin Mulaghesh. She’s the central character in this second book, now a general a few months from retirement. Shara sends her to Voortyashtan, a harbor city with a deeply troubled past, fierce people warring with everyone else, and a whole lot of secrets, to find out what happened to an agent sent there.
Again we get mysteries, secrets, powerful flashbacks, and a headlong clash with the Divine, which is far from absent from the world. But ramifying through this book are difficult questions about what it means to be a soldier, and why we go to war—why humans glorify war when its results are so obscenely hideous, not just to individuals, but to families.
Oh, the families.
Bennett examines the cost of violence, not just to the victims, but to the perpetrators, as individuals, and as a culture. It’s hard hitting, with one scene that drives an ice pick straight through the heart, narrated in language so absent of easy, sentimental metaphor that the effect is devastating, but the plot does not linger—it is satisfied to imprint the memory as it moves on, exactly as life does for the living.
I’ve been thinking about what gets me excited and involved in epic fantasy—all kinds of epic fantasy, from big stakes epics like Bennett’s books, to smaller, harder to define ones like Francesca Forrest’s Pen Pal. If I had to give a one-word description of the books that not only keep me glued to the pages but get me to reread, that would be “contrasts.”
I love complicated world building, but I also need a sense of people truly living in it. A story with what sounds like a nifty world building idea, but whose characters seem to be existing against a blue screen, is not going to keep my interest unless the narrative voice is exceptionally strong, or I fall in love with the characters.
And that’s the second element that must show contrasts, the characters. I like them complex, which means unpredictable, and changing in convincing ways through the events of the story. One of my problems with grimdark (besides my total dislike of horror) is predictability: if everyone is going to do the dark thing all the time, it’s easy to fall out of the book and never pick it up again, in spite of cool world-building. I also have trouble engaging with dark fantasy that seems monotone, all dark all the time.
The epic fantasies I love offer me a wide range of emotional reactions, both in the characters and evoked in myself, from awe to extreme tension, tragedy to laughter, comfort of the familiar to longing for the unseen, the unknown, perhaps glimpsed or dreamed. I love to be delighted by new ideas, and insights that resonate with long life experience, but most of all I love that equipoise between awareness of a made-up world, and a sense that beyond the horizon there really are dragons—the shiver of the real, the true, that I think Northrop Frye was talking about with his concept of kerygma. It was that sense of the real, the true, that sparked my lifetime love of Lord of the Rings, that conviction that Tolkien had glimpsed the secret world beyond the worlds, and wrote a bit of its history.
There are not that many epic fantasies that give me everything I want, but as long as I can get some of the things, I’m ready to dive in until the last page. So when one comes along that does give me everything, it’s especially exhilarating. And that has happened so far with Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs and City of Blades.
I received my copy of City of Blades from Blogging for Books, which only asks for a review, content up to the reader. The illustrations of Bennett’s City of Stairs are made by conceptual artist John Petersen , who kindly gave me permission to use his art for this blog post.