Exploring Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities

Broadway Books (US) 2014

By JJ: It’s been more than a year and a half since I first read Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs. Like a lot of other Filers, I was absolutely blown away by that book when it came out – and I’m still pretty unhappy about it having been bumped off the Hugo ballot by the slating nonsense; otherwise, according to the nominating stats, it would have been a Hugo Finalist in 2015.

And Worldcon voters weren’t the only ones who liked it: City of Stairs was a Finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Society’s Robert Holdstock Award, and it came in second on the annual Locus Magazine Readers’ Poll for Best Fantasy Novel.

I hadn’t got around to reading its 2016 sequel City of Blades yet, but was definitely going to do so before the 2017 Hugo nomination deadline – so when I recently had the opportunity through NetGalley to get an advance eARC of the third book in the series*, City of Miracles, I decided to do a re-read of the first book before diving into the sequels.

The Divine Cities are the legacy of a previous age, when six Divines – entities with godlike powers, each with distinctive personality attributes and their own dedicated followers – reigned over segments of The Continent: “Olvos, the light-bearer. Kolkan, the judge. Voortya, the warrior. Ahanas, the seed-sower. Jukov, the trickster, the starling shepherd. And Taalhavras, the builder.”

Broadway Books (US) 2016

During the many centuries of their reign – a sort of Golden Age – the Divines manifested numerous miraculous acts – some of which their followers were able to subsequently perform themselves. They created many objects and living entities in which were embodied miraculous properties and capabilities.

But there was a dark side to this Golden Age: the Divines, and the Continentals, had subjugated the inhabitants of Saypur, a land across the ocean. Saypuris were servants and laborers who provided much of the bounty of food, natural resources, and technology from which the Continentals benefited. Despite this, the slaves of Saypur were denied access to miracles.

And as oppression always does, this injustice inevitably resulted in the rising of a mighty Saypuri adversary, who studied the Divines for years and eventually determined a way of defeating them.

One of the Divines had disappeared many years before the battle with the Kaj, their fate unknown. The rest of the Divines are believed to be dead, killed by the Kaj’s secret weapon – and most of the miraculous acts and objects tied to the Divines have lost their special powers.

What’s more, the Continent’s majestic capital city of Bulikov underwent a massive transformation at the moment of the Divine deaths. In an occurrence now known as The Blink, huge portions of the city, its skyscrapers, other buildings, and residents, simply ceased to exist; other buildings are now warped and twisted versions of their original forms, and there are now-useless stairways, arches, and bridges which trail off into the air.

Broadway Books (US) 2017

It’s been a few hundred years since the death of the Divines, and the Continent is now “administered” by representatives of the Saypuri government who live in the conquered land.

This is the setting where we first encounter one of the most intriguing protagonists I’ve encountered in a while: Shara Thivani. Supposedly a low-level consular official, she is actually a secret intelligence operative attempting to discover the truth about the death of her former teacher and mentor.

In turns arrogant and humble, harsh and kind, foolish and exceedingly clever, Shara is a contradictorily appealing character. In conjunction with her unlikely allies – the huge, indestructible warrior Sigrud, and the astute but taciturn Governor Turyin Mulaghesh, she stubbornly unravels the mysteries and the conspiracies to uncover a world-changing revelation.

Mystery, spies, magic, and an elaborate, fascinating world: I found it an irresistible combination – one that kept me up at night when I should have been getting sleep for work the next day.

City of Blades is on my 2016 Hugo Nomination list for Best Novel, and next year this series will be on my list for Best Series.

* in exchange for an honest review — as if they were likely to get anything but an honest opinion from me, the more fools they  😉


Jo Fletcher Books (UK) 2014

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett [Divine Cities #1]

The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions – until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself – first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it – stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.

Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country’s most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem – and that Bulikov’s cruel reign may not yet be over.


Jo Fletcher Books (UK) 2016

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett [Divine Cities #2]

A generation ago, the city of Voortyashtan was the stronghold of the god of war and death, the birthplace of fearsome supernatural sentinels who killed and subjugated millions.

Now, the city’s god is dead. The city itself lies in ruins. And to its new military occupiers, the once-powerful capital is a wasteland of sectarian violence and bloody uprisings.

So it makes perfect sense that General Turyin Mulaghesh – foul-mouthed hero of the battle of Bulikov, rumored war criminal, ally of an embattled Prime Minister – has been exiled there to count down the days until she can draw her pension and be forgotten.

At least, it makes the perfect cover story.

The truth is that the general has been pressed into service one last time, dispatched to investigate a discovery with the potential to change the world – or destroy it.

The trouble is that this old soldier isn’t sure she’s still got what it takes to be the hero.


Jo Fletcher Books (UK) 2017

City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett [Divine Cities #3]

Revenge. It’s something Sigrud je Harkvaldsson is very, very good at. Maybe the only thing.

So when he learns that his oldest friend and ally, former Prime Minister Shara Komayd, has been assassinated, he knows exactly what to do – and that no mortal force can stop him from meting out the suffering Shara’s killers deserve.

Yet as Sigrud pursues his quarry with his customary terrifying efficiency, he begins to fear that this battle is an unwinnable one. Because discovering the truth behind Shara’s death will require him to take up arms in a secret, decades-long war, face down an angry young god, and unravel the last mysteries of Bulikov, the city of miracles itself. And – perhaps most daunting of all – finally face the truth about his own cursed existence.


Robert Jackson Bennett

Robert Jackson Bennett

(Fair notice: all Amazon links are referrer URLs which benefit non-profit SFF fan website Worlds Without End)

Other works by Robert Jackson Bennett:

The year is 1919. The McNaughton Corporation is the pinnacle of American industry. They built the guns that won the Great War before it even began. They built the airships that tie the world together. And, above all, they built Evesden – a shining metropolis, the best that the world has to offer. But something is rotten at the heart of the city. Deep underground, a trolley car pulls into a station with eleven dead bodies inside. Four minutes before, the victims were seen boarding at the previous station. Eleven men butchered by hand in the blink of an eye. All are dead. And all are union. Now, one man, Cyril Hayes, must fix this. There is a dark secret behind the inventions of McNaughton and with a war brewing between the executives and the workers, the truth must be discovered before the whole city burns. Caught between the union and the company, between the police and the victims, Hayes must uncover the mystery before it kills him.

It is the time of the Great Depression. Thousands have left their homes looking for a better life, a new life. But Marcus Connelly is not one of them. He searches for one thing, and one thing only: Revenge. Because out there, riding the rails, stalking the camps, is the scarred vagrant who murdered Connelly’s daughter. One man must face a dark truth and answer the question – how much is he willing to sacrifice for his satisfaction?

Vaudeville: mad, mercenary, dreamy, and absurd, a world of clashing cultures and ferocious showmanship and wickedly delightful deceptions. But sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole has joined vaudeville for one reason only: to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father’s troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are strange even for vaudeville: for wherever they happen to tour, the very nature of the world seems to change. Because there is a secret within Silenus’s show so ancient and dangerous that it has won him many powerful enemies. And it’s not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe is not simply touring: they are running for their lives. And soon… he is as well.

Some places are too good to be true. Under a pink moon, there is a perfect little town not found on any map. In that town, there are quiet streets lined with pretty houses, houses that conceal the strangest things. After a couple years of hard traveling, ex-cop Mona Bright inherits her long-dead mother’s home in Wink, New Mexico. And the closer Mona gets to her mother’s past, the more she understands that the people of Wink are very, very different…


Robert Jackson Bennett was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He moved to Austin, Texas, and studied at the University of Texas. Bennett is a two-time award winner of the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel, an Edgar Award winner for Best Paperback Original, and is also the 2010 recipient of the Sydney J Bounds Award for Best Newcomer, and a Philip K Dick Award Citation of Excellence. City of Stairs was shortlisted for the Locus Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Robert Holdstock Award. His seventh novel, City of Miracles, will be released on May 2, 2017 in both the US and the UK. Bennett lives in Austin with his wife and sons.

Pixel Scroll 1/29/16 Purple Pixel Eater

(1) IMMEDIATE FEEDBACK. CBC reports a Twitter uproar ensued after a Marvel exec made a big contribution during the broadcast of a Trump charity event.

‘Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump announced at a fundraiser Thursday night that Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter would donate $1 million US to his charitable foundation, and comic book fans took to Twitter in reaction.’

Taral, who knows how fans think, says, “I can imagine a lot of Marvel readers and viewers being horrified and contemplating a boycott for almost 3/10s of a second before lining up to see Antman for the fourth time.”

(2) A DIFFERENT GIVING OPPORTUNITY. George Takei is the draw in a new Omaze donation drive — “Charity Share: Inspire Change Broadway”

Oh myyy! Social media aficionado and former helmsman of the Starship Enterprise, George Takei is offering one lucky Omaze winner the opportunity to “Takei over NYC” with him. Just $10 gets you the chance to have a private dinner with George, sit VIP at his Broadway musical Allegiance, and go inside the stage door to meet the cast! And it all supports Inspire Change Broadway.

Launched in 2009, Inspire Change Broadway provides communities across the tri-state area with subsidized tickets and round-trip transportation to Broadway productions….

…Thanks to donors from around the world and Inspire Change Broadway, 10,000 students who may have been unable to afford tickets got to experience the Tony Award-winning musical Memphis.

Now the foundation hopes to do the same for Allegiance, which is set during the period of Japanese-American internment in World War II and inspired by events from George Takei’s own childhood experience. Learn more here! 

(3) ANIMATED JUSTICE LEAGUE. DC’s Justice League will return to the Cartoon Network in 2017, with fan favorites providing some of the voices.

Well, DC’s top superteam is returning to TV in the upcoming Justice League Action. The new series will star DC’s classic triad of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman along with rotating guest stars and its episodes will be 11 minutes long, similar to Teen Titans GO! Speaking of which, Justice League Action will be executive produced by Sam Register, who also producers Teen Titans GO!

…it’s set to feature the return of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. Conroy and Hamill put their indelible stamps on Batman and The Joker in the original Batman: The Animated Series, but they’ve been phased out in recent years…. Both of them returning is a real treat for longtime fans of Warner Bros. Animation’s superhero cartoons. The show will also feature James Woods as Lex Luthor.

(4) THIS JOB AIN’T THAT EFFIN’ EASY! Fansided’s Leah Tedesco, who writes for Doctor Who Watch, tells what it’s like to face the forbidding temporal desert of a show’s hiatus in “Doctor Who: On Writing for a Fan Site”.

When you write for a fan site of a television program, the off season can be a particularly tricky period. Oh, there is a trickle of news, but the big stories are few and far between. Until Doctor Who returns with the 2016 Christmas special, we at Doctor Who Watch have been tasked with the challenging endeavor of continuing to generate at least the minimum number of articles each month for almost an entire new-episodeless year. I imagine that madness will soon ensue… well, more madness than is already involved.

(5) CAREER COUNSELING. At Black Gate, Violette Malan’s “You May Be A Writer” begins with a humorous hook —

Do you enjoy planning? When you want to give a party, do you start making lists? Thinking about the menu? Who to invite? When there’s a trip coming up, are there lists? Are you usually the first one packed? Or have you at least given considerable thought to your packing?

Is organizing an event almost more fun than the event itself? Then you may be a writer.

Do you think planning’s for squares? Do you decide at 6:00 pm to have a party and let people know via Twitter? Are you rushing through the airport at the last minute with your passport in one hand and a pair of (mismatched) socks in the other?

Are you all about the spontaneity? Seizing the moment? Then you may be a writer.

Of course, what I’m talking about here is process: every writer has one, and it’s likely to be different from yours, or mine.

(6) EXPANSEAPALOOZA. “’The Expanse’ Authors Talk Space Epic Size and Crazy Sci-Fi Tech” at Space.com.

Space.com: What’s the coolest technology you have developed for the series?

Franck: In the book series, when we were coming up with the visuals for the ships and stuff, I was talking to a guy I know who works out of Los Alamos Labs. I was talking to him about the fact that the primary weapon on our ships is railguns — those big, electromagnetically fired weapons. And he said you can extend the length of a railgun barrel [by blowing] this plasma out, and you run electricity through the plasma.

“Turning a Sci-Fi Series into a TV Epic: Q&A with ‘The Expanse’ Authors”, from Space.com.

Space.com: I’ve read that the initial concept for the books was actually a video game. Is that right?

Ty Franck: The fleshed-out version of the idea started out as that. I’d had the idea before that, but when a friend of mine asked me to help her come up with a pitch for a video game is when I really sat down and put more flesh on the bones of this idea that I had. It existed before that, but it was sort of nebulous. The video game thing is what really kind of solidified it.

But as soon as they realized how expensive making an MMO [massively multiplayer online game] was, they sort of backed away quietly.

Space.com: What happened to the story next?

Franck: It went from a video game to a pen-and-paper RPG [role-playing game] setting because I wanted to keep playing around with it. And then Daniel did the rest.

Daniel Abraham: I was in Ty’s tabletop game, and I saw the amount of work that he’d done with the background and world building. And I’d written probably six or seven novels at that point, so my pitch was, “Look, you’ve already done all the hard work; let’s just write it down, and it’ll be a book.”

(7) RAFTERY OBIT. SF Site News reports British filker Joe Raftery died January 29.

Raftery debuted his first filk song at the 1979 Worldcon in Brighton before gafiating until 2000, when he attended FilkContinental. Following his reintroduction to fandom, Raftery became a regular at filk meet ups and was nominated for the Pegasus Award in 2007 for his role in the n’Early Music Consort.

Farah Mendelsohn credited his behind the scenes design work on Loncon3’s Exhibit Hall with enhancing accessibility:

If our accessibility was so good, it’s because Joe designed the corridors, the seating areas, the shapes of booths and the spaces between boards. We couldn’t have managed the intricacies of the exhibits without him.

He is survived by his wife Gwen Knighton Rafter and his children Anna Raftery and Emily January.

(8) TODAY IN HISTORY

  • January 29, 1845 — Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven was published.

(9) SPEAKER TO GENIUSES. Today Mad Genius Club featured “Hugo History – A Guest Post by Ben Yalow”. It’s fascinating to watch an accomplished fanpolitician at work, but — Why is Yalow working the Mad Genius Club? And he makes an interesting choice to discuss Hugo history as something “we” did — will MGC regulars feel included or excluded? Consider the way Yalow phrased the rules changes that produced the semiprozine category.

When it became clear that, during the late 70s, we had three fanzines whose circulation was many thousands, while most fanzines were having circulations in the low hundreds (when you’re printing and mailing physical fanzines, and generally they were available for free, there were real limits on circulation, depending on people’s budgets), we split out semiprozines, just to get them out of the fanzine category. And we tweaked the rules somewhat, so that there were more contenders than just the three that we moved out of fanzine; if it were only that, then semiprozine wouldn’t be a viable category. We were starting to see the beginnings of small run fiction magazines, and serious academic small circulation magazines, and the semiprozine rules put those into the new category, so it was a category offering reasonable choices.

(10) HAD ME GOING. It turns out Sigrid Ellis’ “Best Brussel Sprouts” post is a recipe, not an idea for a new Hugo category.

Okay, these are not the BEST Brussel sprouts. I am pretty sure the BEST ones are cooked with bacon. But these are pretty good.

(11) MORE RECOMMENDATIONS. Nerds of a Feather continues its recommendations in “2016 Hugo Longlist, Part 4: Nonfiction and Institutional Categories”.

This time we are looking at what are, for lack of a better term, the “nonfiction and institutional categories”: Best Related Work, Best Semiprozine, Best Fanzine and Best Fancast. Now, those who follow this blog know how cranky I can get on the subject of certain categories and their bizarre eligibility guidelines–and we’ve got two of them today (Best Semiprozine and Best Fancast). Nevertheless, I will do my best to stay calm and stick to the rules, frustrating as they can be. I reserve the right, will, however, get a little snarky and passive-aggressive in the process.

(12) ANOTHER ELIGIBILITY POST ADVOCATE. Abigail Nussbaum has a few thoughts about the opening of the 2016 Hugo nominations.

The announcement that Hugo nominations are open (as well as the nominating periods for several other awards, such as the BSFA and the Nebula) is usually accompanied by authors putting up “award eligibility posts,” followed by a discussion of whether this is a good thing or whether it makes the entire process into a PR effort.  I’ve already said my piece on this subject, so at the present I’ll just repeat what feels to me like the most important point from that essay, which is that my problem with award eligibility posts is less that they’re crass and commercialized, and more that for their stated purpose, they are utterly useless.  I don’t want to trawl through an author’s blog history to find the list of works they published last year.  What I want is a bibliography–easily found, up-to-date, and ideally sorted by publication date and containing links to works that are available online or for purchase as ebooks.  If you haven’t got one of those on your website, I have to question how seriously you want my vote.

(13) THAT MAKES EVERYTHING OKAY. Antonelli reminds himself (and the internet) that John Clute said nice things about his writing.

After spending most of 2015 – the period from April 4 until August 22 – being told I was an worthless hack writer and overall loser by the s-f literary establishment because I was a Sad Puppy nominee for the Hugo awards, I sometimes go and read my entry in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia by John Clute to remind myself I sometimes rise to the level of occasional competency:…

(14) MASSIVE MULTI-LAWYER ROLEPLAYING. Motherboard explains how “Sony’s Greedy Attempt to Trademark ‘Let’s Play’ Was Shot Down”.

Gaming is a hugely popular category for video content on the internet. It’s why Amazon acquired the video game streaming platform Twitch for $1 billion, and why the most famous creator of “Let’s Play” videos Pewdiepie has the most popular channel on YouTube with 41 million subscribers. Basically, if Sony managed to register this “Let’s Play” trademark, the company would be in a good position to sue any YouTuber or Twitch streamer who used the term to promote their videos, even though the term has been commonly used in the gaming community for roughly a decade.

The USPTO said it would likely reject Sony’s application in its initial form, but gave Sony six months to address its concerns, namely that Sony’s application is too similar to an existing trademark called “LP Let’z Play.”

(15) SAVORY TWEETS. The connoisseurs at Fantasy Faction bring you “The Top 15 Tweets & Top 7 Blog Posts of Robert Jackson Bennett”.

The Twitter-feed of Robert Jackson Bennett is a wondrous, but dangerous place to spend time. If you follow Robert in addition to another 1000 or so people, the normality and reason of the masses will likely dilute the strangeness and zaniness of Robert’s feed to the extent there will be no lasting damage or changes in personality from what you consume. If you spend time looking through Robert’s Tweets on a Tweet-by-Tweet basis though, as I was asked to do by Jo Fletcher Books for this feature, there may be some lasting damage…

Here is their comment about Bennett’s 2009 blog post “Finished.”

Link: http://robertjacksonbennett.com/blog/finished

I love this blog post because, as someone who writes, it is a reminder that not everything you write is publishable or even good; in fact, ‘80% of your output will be unacceptable shit, even if you polish it.’ I’ve spoken before about my thoughts that too many novelists of 2016 are too quick to use Amazon direct publishing as an alternative to admitting their work isn’t ready to be published and that they need more practice. Robert’s ability to take the good and learn from it combined with a willingness to ‘toss the rest and start all over again’ is undoubtedly the reason his books have gotten better and better.

It’s interesting to note the book The Long Wake of which Robert says ‘I like it. I really like it a lot.’ has not been published yet (i.e. it became another, unexpected, learning experience). You can read about that here and here.

[Thanks to John King Tarpinian, JJ, Andrew Porter and Steven H Silver for some of these stories. Title credit belongs to File 770 contributing editor of the day Soon Lee.]