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Literature / The Divine Cities

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The Divine Cities is a fantasy series authored by Robert Jackson Bennett.

City of Stairs, the first book in the series, was released in September 2014. Bulikov was once the Seat of the World and host to a pantheon of Divinities that provided everything their followers needed and led them to victory in expanding to an empire. That is, until someone from one of their conquered colonies, Saypur, discovered a way to kill the Divinities. In the years since, Saypur has risen to the status of a world power with the help of technology while Bulikov has been reduced to a destitute backwater.

Shara Thivani, spymaster and operative from Saypur, has always been fascinated by the Continent's history — when a historian and reformist she was personally close to shows up beaten to death in Bulikov, she seizes the opportunity to show up in Bulikov and find his killer.


Nothing, obviously, is what she thought it was at first.

The second book in the series, City of Blades, was released in January 2016. A generation ago, the city of Voortyashtan was the stronghold of the Divinity of war and death. Now, the once-powerful capital is a wasteland of sectarian violence and bloody uprisings, and General Turyin Mulaghesh — foul-mouthed hero of the battle of Bulikov, rumored war criminal, ally of the embattled Prime Minister — has been exiled there to count down the days until she can draw her pension and be forgotten.

At least, that's her 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 third book in the series, City of Miracles, was released in May of 2017, with Sigrud je Harkvaldsson as the central character.


The Divine Cities provide examples of:

  • Action Girl: A good number of them, as Saypur appears to be a post-feminist society.
    • City of Stairs introduces Mulaghesh, who's middle-aged and career military.
    • City of Blades has Signe Harkvaldsson, Sigrud's daughter, and Nadar, who is in charge of Fort Thinadeshi.
  • After the End: Life as the people of the Continent knew it ended when their gods were killed in a rebellion over 75 years before the events of City of Stairs. With their gods, most of their infrastructure — which was originally created by said gods — disappeared; entire city blocks just vanished, taking their inhabitants with them and leaving behind a wasteland peppered with random areas where reality has permanently forgotten how it's supposed to work. Effectively, civilization ended on the Continent.
  • Barbarian Hero: Sigrud, Shara's six and a half feet tall bodyguard and assistant. She tends to introduce him as her secretary, especially when confronted with other people's assumption that he's just a Dreyling barbarian from the northern lands. Sigrud does not care to correct their assumptions and prefers his heritage to dictate others' opinion of him. It is, however, Sigrud who often saves the day and gets horribly injured while fighting to protect strangers, even though his methods for doing so involve copious amounts of flat-out slaughter.
  • Chekhov's Armory: Several items from the list of impounded miraculous items stashed away in the Unmentionable Warehouse are mentioned in passing, but become vitally important to the story later. The villains are using a magical door to access the vault that contains more of said items, and they use threads from a flying carpet to create a fleet of nigh untouchable airships.
  • Complaining About Rescues They Don't Like: Subverted. Knowing how defensive the Continentals are when it comes to anything Divine, Shara expects the locals to be furious when they kill Urav, a god-created tentacle monster that was attacking the city and devouring dozens of people. She's quite surprised when the populace hails them as heroes, showing they aren't all the irrational zealots she thought they were.
  • God Is Dead: The Continent's gods — who created not only most of the Continent's infrastructure, but much of its parallel realities as well — were killed in a rebellion 75 years prior to the first book, City Of Stairs, and the Continent still hasn't recovered since. The fact that they're no longer even allowed to discuss or reference their old gods doesn't help with the discontent.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture:
    • Saypur is based on India, while the Continent is a combination of Britain (former colonizers bitter about the loss of their empire) and Russia (names, climate, and being compelled to give up their religion). Only in this world, the British Empire fell so hard it was reduced to a third-world country and occupied by India. Meanwhile, Sigrud's homeland, the Dreyling countries, are very obviously based on Scandinavia.
    • In terms of religions, the Ahanashtan bore a close resemblance to Jainism, while Olvoshtan monks (who shave their heads and wear orange robes) are counterparts to Theravada Buddhists. Kolkan's harsh laws on topics ranging from same-sex relations to mixing fibers are an exaggerated version of The Book of Leviticus.
  • Fantasy Gun Control: Downplayed. Guns exist, but since the dominant tech culture is a nation lacking saltpeter, the weapons in City of Stairs are mostly advanced crossbows. Guns are fully present in the next book, thanks to Saypur starting to support the Continent's industry.
  • Full-Frontal Assault: How Sigrud chooses to fight a giant tentacle monster, naked and covered in cow fat. This is to make it hard for the tentacles to grasp him.
  • The Hero's Journey: The plot of City of Blades. Mulaghesh reluctantly answers a call to adventure, during which she faces death, grapples her own inner demons, is transformed, and finally returns home.
  • Mad God: In the backstory, Kolkan, one of the Divinities reigning over the Continent, went insane by giving his followers endless rules to live by. He started out fairly sane, but kept on making thousands upon thousands of rules about incredibly minor things — like what shoes and fabrics his followers were allowed to wear — and mandating increasingly harsh punishments for the mildest violations, until his fellow Divinities disappeared him.
  • Magitek: It's been ubiquitous on the Continent during the Divine era, what with miracles being used for absolutely everything, up to and including disposing of solid waste. After the death of the Divinities, most of the miracles stopped working, hence the extremely hard fall of the Continent. Saypur, meanwhile, had always had to make do without said Magitek, explaining her rapid technological ascendancy.
  • No Ontological Inertia: Inconsistently; when the Divinities were killed 75 years before the first book, City of Stairs, their miracles and anything they had built stopped working or ceased existing. This included a lot of the Continent's cities and infrastructure, leaving the place extremely devastated. The city of Bulikov, for example, shrunk by several miles inward. Other miracles, however, kept working, and no in-story explanation is known for why some things stopped existing and others didn't. Storywise, this is a major hint that not all the Divinities are dead.
  • Right Hand vs. Left Hand: In one of the main plot lines in City of Blades, the missing explosives assumed to have been stolen from the Saypuri forces by guerrilla fighters were actually taken by Saypuri operative Choudhry in an attempt to prevent a supernatural apocalypse.
  • Schizo Tech: The series as a whole is somewhere between Steam Punk and Diesel Punk (albeit set in a Constructed World, unlike most examples), with some really weird combinations:
    • By the time City of Stairs takes place, automobiles exist already, as do telephones and radio, and ironclad battleships (dreadnoughts) - any of that usually being wholly absent from the many examples of the Standard Fantasy Setting. However, at the same time, there are no firearms, only "bolt-shots" which seem to be something like crossbows. Needless to say, in our reality, (non-rifled) firearms were invented several centuries before either the telephone or the radio, much less the automobile.
    • By the time of the second book, City of Blades, however, Saypur has made a few technological leaps, and firearms are now commonplace, up to and including miniguns and something akin to anti-tank rifles. Industrialization has progressed as well, with large construction projects everywhere.
    • By the time of the finale, City of Miracles, the level of technology approaches something like the The '30s of our reality, with regular forays into The ’50s and beyond, what with large-scale electrification, automobiles and buses that are utterly commonplace, glass-and-steel skyscrapers with elevators in them, a heavy-duty cable car system, hand-held automatic firearms and much more. One distinct difference to the real world (apart from the whole Divinities thing, that is), however, is the utter lack of non-miraculous, purely technological aviation, of which there is not a single example even by the time of third book - although, by the standards of Saypuri technology in general at that point, they at the very least ought to have figured out the basic principles comfortably.
  • Secret Government Warehouse: The Unmentionable Warehouses contain all the artifacts and miraculous items the Saypuri were able to get their hands on after they conquered the Continent and outlawed any mention of the Divinities or their Miracles. Nobody but the hightest authorities in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are even allowed to know of the existence of the warehouses, and even less people are allowed to enter them, meaning the various items have been collecting dust for over seven decades. The warehouse outside of Bulikov masquerades as an unremarkable warehouse between ones that store supplies for the Saypuri military, but becomes vital to the story as Dr. Efrem Pangyui's legal access to it brings the Restorationist's on his case, who want access to its stored Miracles for their own means.
  • Semi-Divine:
    • With a pantheon of squabbling gods reigning over the Continent, it's not a surprise that there were plenty of semi-divine beings around before the Kaj killed the Continent's Divinities. Those beings were called the Blessed and reality itself felt the urge to accomodate their wishes, warping itself around them and — to a lesser extent — around their descendants. Saypur's last Kaj and resident godslayer, upon conquering the Continent, dragged them and any other divine creatures he could find out into the streets and executed them all.
    • In an ironic turn of events, the Kaj himself was part Divine through his mother Lisha, a daughter of the Divinities Olvos and Jukov, though he didn't know this until Jukov himself told him. It was the only reason, in fact, why and how he menaged to develop a weapon strong enough to kill the gods, as a non-Blessed human could not have accomplished that.
  • The Theocracy: Bulikov and its Continental neighbouring cities all were theocracies during their Golden Age. Their individual gods were highly involved in the lives of their followers and provided leadership, guidance and infrastructure, with Bulikov being neutral ground ruled by all six Divinities equally. The Continent's been a bit of a mess ever since all the Divities died as it turned out that not only did they provide societal laws, but the Continent's entire infrastructure relied on their existence.
  • Trickster God: Jukov was the trickster Divinity of pleasure, corruption, chaos, madness, rebellion and a few other things. Stories of him playing tricks on his believers, like changing their form or luring them somewhere, abound. His favourite animal was the starling, but he seemed to favour birds in general, often turning himself or his followers into birds.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: In City of Blades, Rada Smolisk, survivor of the Battle of Bulikov, is the one trying to bring about the apocalypse.

Alternative Title(s): City Of Stairs


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