I’ve always hated it when politicians use the term “boots on the ground.” The synecdoche reduces soldiers to inanimate objects, dehumanizing them, and making it easy to forget that we ask soldiers to fight and die for us. The question of what it really means to be a soldier is central to Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Blades. In this novel, we see warfare at its worst. In the history of the Continent (introduced in Bennett’s City of Stairs), soldiers were a tool of a war-mad goddess. We see soldiers making war on civilians. But we also see our protagonist asking soldiers to be more than just boots on the ground. General Turyin Mulaghesh wants to remind her fellow soldiers and her country that an army is a force for good.
Mulaghesh has been in retreat for years, though it’s officially called her retirement from the Saypur army. Her old boss calls her away from her island on a technicality with her pension, sending her to the city of Voortyashtan on what’s really one last mission. Mulaghesh is not happy, but she does her duty. In Voortyashtan, she meets the man who was her commanding officer during the worst part of her army career: when she was asked to make war on civilians to shorten the conflict between Saypur and the Continent. At the time, Mulaghesh did not question her orders. Now the Yellow March is her biggest regret.
In CIty of Blades, Bennett takes us deeper into the history of the Continent and we learn about the Continentals’ goddess of war, Voortya. Even though the goddess was killed over a century before the novel begins, her memory casts a long shadow. Mulaghesh and others still fear Voortya’s sentinels, nearly-indestructible soldiers who terrorized the Continent and Saypur for centuries. Shortly after Mulaghesh arrives, she lands smack in the middle of an attempt to resurrect the sentinels.
There are two things I absolutely loved about City of Blades. The first is the return of Turyin Mulaghesh. She’s a fantastic anti-hero (rare for a female character). She’s damaged and conflicted, but she’s also fierce, intelligent, and stubborn. I love watching her in this book. The second thing I loved is the question about what soldiers are and how they should be used that is repeated throughout City of Blades. We have rules in our world about what soldiers can and can’t do in war. No such rules exist in Mulaghesh’s world. For Mulaghesh, soldiers are servants; they should be deployed in such a way that they make a situation better. Mulaghesh wants soldiers to serve as protectors for civilians. Soldiers are not weapons, to indiscriminately kill wherever they are sent like the sentinels. The problem is that Mulaghesh is an optimist in a world that is chillingly pragmatic.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 26 January 2016.