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City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett 

Published by Broadway Books on May 2, 2017

Epic fantasy almost always follows a well-established path. A heroic figure embarks on a quest to overcome a force of evil. I don’t read much modern epic fantasy because so much of it is predictable and boring. But whatever genre Robert Jackson Bennett chooses (he often straddles fantasy and science fiction), I read his work with great anticipation because he is never predictable.

City of Miracles is the third novel in an excellent trilogy. It seemed to me that the first novel was so good, there was no need for a second. I enjoyed it but I felt a bit let down because the characters and setting were no longer fresh and startling. Still, as soon as I started reading City of Miracles, I was swept up in the sense of wonder that enveloped me as I read City of Stairs. Part of that stems from the novel’s focus on Sigrud, one of Robert Bennett Jackson’s most complex characters and by far my favorite in the trilogy.

Shara Komayd has not been prime minister for ten years, but she still has enemies. City of Miracles opens with her assassination — the first of many surprising elements in story — the news of which deeply disturbs Sigrud. Naturally, he vows to find the killer. That leads him back into the quest established in the first novel and advanced in the second: to overcome the divine entities that pose a threat to humanity’s future.

There shouldn’t be many divine entities left after the first two novels, but it turns out that the divinities had children, and there are any number of those, although the most powerful of them wants to wipe out the rest and absorb their power, strengthening his ability to expand his realm (nighttime itself) until nothing is left that is warm and light and, well, alive.

Along the way, Sigrud fights the requisite battles that an epic hero must face, but the interesting thing about Sigrud is how he changes over the course of the trilogy. In part, the change is physical — something happened earlier in his life that (as the reader will have noticed in the last book) gives Sigrud an improbable ability to overcome divine obstacles — but he also changes emotionally as he struggles with his past, his pain, his dark nature, the death of his daughter, the death of Shara, his sense that he has never been free to define his own identity, and his uncertainty about the identity he would want to define if given a choice. Sigrud describes himself as “a man whose moments are little more than slit throats, and sorrow, and skulking in the dark.” He is an unlikely epic hero, but he is also selfless and duty-bound, a man whose means are at war with his ends. Bennett always creates strong characters, but the conflicted Sigrud is one of his best.

City of Miracles is an excellent action/adventure novel. On another level, it can be read as an allegory about the isolation of abandoned or abused or orphaned children, about the consequences of failing to provide them with stability and guidance. And it is a novel of epic themes:  the need to let go of grievances before they become all-consuming; the difference between justice and vengeance; the eternal struggle of the privileged few to control the masses; the desire to defeat time; the meaning of freedom and happiness; the remarkable ability of humans (and deities) to destroy just about anything that’s good.

By removing the story from the political quarrels that impair clarity of thought, science fiction and fantasy can use a world (or time) that is not our own to shed light on the failings and virtues of the world (or time) that is our own.  Bennett uses that opportunity to say something important about our world and our lives by directing our attention to a fictional world that is very different from, but significantly similar to, the world that humans are always trying so hard to destroy.

The first book in the trilogy was so good that I was almost sorry to see it continue. Having read the third book, I’m sorry to see it end.


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