Robert Jackson 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. He lives in Austin with his wife and son. He can be found on Twitter at @robertjbennett.
The author’s current series, The Divine Cities, started with City of Stairs and continues with City of Blades, which will be released in the US on January 26th. Because I am turning into a horrible slacker in my old age, I haven’t reviewed either of these yet, so I’ll just say this: they’re two out of only six new novels I’ve given a perfect five star rating in the past three years, out of the several hundred I’ve read.
In the following guest post, Robert Jackson Bennett talks about one of the most fascinating aspects of these novels: the way they explore the nature of divinity, religion, and power.
On Gods, Religion, and Power
When City of Stairs came out in 2014, I got a lot of questions about my feelings on organized religion.
This is because the subject of City of Stairs is the matter of gods, and what to do once they’re gone. Well before the start of the book, the Divinities have either been murdered or vanished, and when they left, all their miracles went with them. As their miracles and blessings sustained a national way of life, this meant a catastrophic shift in reality for millions of people overnight, totally and brutally upending everything, decimating whole cities.
But despite the subject matter, I was never quite sure how to answer such questions. Because I’d never intended The Divine Cities to have much to say about organized religion at all.
The religions and gods in City of Stairs and its sequel, City of Blades, are really a stand in for something far more common, and far more dangerous, than just organized religion: the Divine is power itself, the ability to reshape reality based on a whim.
That’s the definition of power, really. If I can make everyone agree with me that blue is now green and we won’t be mentioning the number eight anymore as I just don’t care for that digit, that’s an incredible power. The powerful people in the world decide our realities all the time, making bold, sometimes unilateral decisions about the value of a material, of a currency, of a nation, of a human life. They decide which history really counts as history, and which parts we should forget.
The Divinities in The Divine Cities are simply a literalization of that power: if they wish something to be true, then it is true – and if they wish something to be gone, then it will be as if it was never there at all, overwriting reality without effort.
Because of this, I think my gods are a little different from Gaiman’s and Pratchett’s, where gods were the embodiments of stories, ways humans use myths to make sense of a senseless reality. Because the people of The Divine Cities are changed by power as they use it, which makes them change how they use that power, which then changes them more.
It’s a cycle, and a dangerous one. By the time City of Stairs takes place, it’s already run well out of control, damaging millions of lives. Because if you can influence reality, you can start to believe all kinds of things: that warfare is happy and noble, that slavery is perfectly acceptable, that you are perfectly entitled to all of creation, that the execution of families is simply one of many numerous tools one could employ to get things done.
The world of City of Stairs and City of Blades, in other words, is our own world, only more so.
And like our world, the pain that power leaves in its wake lasts long after that power is gone. General Mulaghesh, the protagonist of City of Blades – veteran and reluctant spy – knows that all too well. She knows that wars last well after they’re won or lost. She knows how power can bleed into your mind, how your moralities shift when you’re waging war in the land of the people who once enslaved you – and she knows that the actions you take as a bright young patriot echo on, hanging over your later days.
The question then, is how to move on. How to accept the past, and try to change yourself, and try to become something new. She’s forced to confront these questions in City of Blades, where she, a veteran and career officer, is sent to the city that was once the domain of the goddess of death, warfare, and destruction. Much like Mulaghesh, that city is trying to change, to evolve, to become something new. But Mulaghesh has her doubts. She knows better than most that that’s much, much harder than it sounds.
City of Stairs, the first novel in The Divine Cities, is out now. Its sequel, City of Blades, will be released in the US on January 26th. If I were you, I’d just pre-order it now, because my goodness.