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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 Komayd, spymaster and operative from Saypur (and a descendant of the very man who killed the Divinities), 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 Shara Komayd — 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. Thirteen years after he last saw her, Sigrud learns that his friend, former Prime Minister Shara Komayd, has been assassinated, and travels to the booming city of Ahanashtan to investigate. Quickly it becomes clear that Shara had once again run afoul of a mysterious Divine being, who has now set his eyes on also murdering Shara's daughter — and her new bodyguard, Sigrud.


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 Mulaghesh again, this time in a more major role, as well as Signe Harkvaldsson, Sigrud's daughter, and Nadar, who is in charge of Fort Thinadeshi.
    • Lastly, in City of Miracles there's Malwina, a Divine child, Shara's friend Restroyka, and Mishra, an operative who aids the antagonist.
  • 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.
  • Anti-Magical Faction: The Saypuri are an unusually sympathetic (though still morally gray) example, thanks to spending eight centuries colonized and brutally enslaved by an empire with some very active gods on its side. Said pantheon of gods spread miracles around like water, giving their followers Divine weapons, spells, super-soldiers, cities, and even a different climate. Then one of the Saypuri figured out how to kill a god, breaking everything they created. The Saypuri proceeded to wipe out the pantheon, invade the devastated empire, confiscate or destroy anything connected to the Divine (including various demigods), and banned even mentioning the dead gods by name. The series proper starts 75 years after the last god died, and the Saypuri are only starting to lose their paranoia about anything Divine.
  • Artifact of Doom: The Voortyashtani swords in City of Blades. They're connected to the undead warriors in Voortya's afterlife and draw these back to the living world to wreak havoc on humanity when not stopped.
  • 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. Also further subverted in that Sigrud is actually a well-educated guy, having been trained extensively by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He knows his way around a library just as well as around his weapons.
  • Bury Your Gays: Vohannes in the first book and Tavaan in the third both do a Heroic Sacrifice. In a more minor example, Malwina, Tavaan's lover, reunites with Tatyana to form the single entity Sempros, losing part of her identity in the process.
  • 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.
  • Deity Identity Confusion: Jukov, the trickster god, lost his identity and started to believe that he was another god, Kolkan, when he concealed himself in a pane of glass that was a prison intended only to hold Kolkan.
  • Did You Just Flip Off Cthulhu?: Vohannes Votrov - knowing he won't survive the encounter anyway - proceeds to taunt Kolkan with all the ways in which he doesn't follow the god's many insane rules.
  • Did We Just Have Tea with Cthulhu?: Towards the end of the first book, Shara meets and has a nice personal talk with Olvos, one of the six original Divinities.
  • Driving Question:
    • In Book One: "Who killed Dr. Efrem Pangyui?"
    • In Book Two: "What happened to Sumitra Choudry?"
    • In Book Three: "Why was Shara assassinated?", but also, increasingly, "What the hell is wrong with Sigrud?"
  • Dug Too Deep: The soldiers stationed in Fort Thinadeshi in City of Blades have found an ore with odd miraculous properties in the ground that they wish to mine and likely use for technology. Of course it turns out that the ore is what's left of a giant grave of buried swords which are directly connected to tens of thousands of undead Voortyashtani warriors bent on destroying the living. And mining the swords woke them up. Oops.
  • Eldritch Location: Nokov's domain, the domain of Night definitely counts. When Sigrud inadvertantly enters it, he very nearly doesn't survive.
  • Experienced Protagonist: Shara, Mulaghesh and Sigrud are in their thirties, forties and fifties respectively and have already lived busy lives before the story starts - Shara as a spy and operative, Mulaghesh as a military leader, and Sigrud as Shara's longtime assistant and a royal exile.
  • 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 Ahanashtans bear 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 books, thanks to Saypur starting to support the Continent's industry.
  • Fantasy Pantheon: Let's see:
    • There are the six original Divinities: Olvos, Talhaavras, Kolkan, Voortya, Ahanas, and Jukov. Most of them were killed by the Kaj. The Divinities are Cosmic Entities of uncertain origin who defined life on and ruled over the Continent.
    • Then there are the Divine children, who, appropriately enough, are the children of two Divinities. Some show up in City of Miracles, but most were killed decades ago by the Kaj. Not quite as powerful as their parents, each of them was given Domain over a certain aspect of reality.
    • Lastly, there are the so-called Blessed, remote descendants of the gods with mixed human and Divine blood. The Blessed were Born Lucky, as reality was bound to warp around them, making their lives easier and facilitating their accomplishments.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Sigrud and Shara already are this at the start of the first book. Spending a decade hunting monsters together and practically being each other's only confidante will do that. Sigrud is devastated when Shara dies at the start of the third book.
    • Sigrud and Mulaghesh, to a slightly lesser extent.
  • 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.
  • Genre-Busting: The Divine Cities is basically Diesel Punk set in a secondary world, but the books are written largely like Spy Thrillers.
  • Glorious Leader: The Kaj is glorified to this day as the hero who killed the Divinities, liberated Saypur and made it into the world power it is. His descendants benefit from his glory, but it also puts them under pressure to live up to the family name's reputation.
    • Also Vallaicha Thinadeshi, the engineer who explored the Continent after Saypur took over before suddenly disappearing from the face of the earth. In the second book she turns out to be Not Quite Dead — Mulaghesh encounters her in Voorya's afterlife where she was forced to take over the role of the dead god to prevent the dead warriors from invading the land of the living.
  • God Is Dead: The Continent's gods — who created not only most of the Continent's infrastructure, but 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 the Continentals are no longer even allowed to discuss or reference their old gods doesn't help with the discontent.
  • Gods Need Prayer Badly: An interesting take on this. While the Divinities' individual power didn't depend on the number or fervor of their followers, they were bound to the Continent — to the point of not being able to enter Saypur — and to the humans living in it.
  • Government Conspiracy: In City of Stairs, Shara at last finds out that Dr. Pangyui was in fact murdered by his own government to bury what he found out about the Kaj's — and thus Shara's aunt Vinya's — semi-divine background.
    • In City of Miracles, it turns out that the government — on Vinya's command — in fact tried to bury a lot more than this. They were planning to use Divine children for their own means — i. e. as living weapons — which eventually led to disaster.
  • Great Gazoo: 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.
  • Guys Smash, Girls Shoot: In City of Miracles, when Sigrud and Ivanya Restroyka team up to bring down an enemy operative, Ivanya proceeds to shoot the target from a distance while Sigrud attacks directly, with a knife. However, the roles switch around later, with Sigrud using a pistol to distract a seneschal (human turned into a Divine entity) so that Ivanya can kill it with Sigrud's magic sword.
  • He Knows Too Much: Poor Efrem Pangyui was assassinated by his own employer due to being a bit too successful at his researching job.
  • 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.
  • Hidden Villain: In City of Stairs Vinya Komayd, the Minister of Foreign Affairs herself is the one who really set the plot in motion. And in City of Blades, Rada Smolisk is the one with the Evil Plan.
  • Higher Understanding Through Drugs: Philosopher's Stones, which have roughly the same effect as LSD, were historically used to commune with the Divine. As such, as Shara learns first-hand in a desperate last-minute plan near the end of the first book, while taking an enormous dose will drive you mad, if you happen to know how to cast Miracles, they will make your casting of said Miracles far more powerful. She then creates new miracles, starts wiping out a whole Divine army with them, and basically temporarily becomes (almost) a god, all while high as a kite.
  • Living Weapon: The third book reveals that Vinya Komayd was planning on using Divine children — one in particular — as weapons in the service of Saypur.
  • 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.
  • Magic A Is Magic A: Miracles can be used by anyone in the know about them. Granted, most people are unaware that there are even any miracles still available after the (supposed) death of the gods. As such they almost take on the role of Lost Technology.
  • 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.
  • Martyrdom Culture: Voortyashtani culture, to a T. Every Voortyashtani's life goal was to fight glorious wars and die in battle, then to wait in the afterlife until the day when their god led them to fight the last war and take revenge on the living. The fact that Voortya died before gifting her warriors this last war is the underlying problem in City of Blades.
  • Mental Time Travel: Malwina's power. People subjected to it usually forget everything that happened in the aborted timeline. That Sigrud doesn't is part of the grand mystery surrounding him in the third book.
  • No Indoor Voice: When a Divinity speaks, you will hear them for miles around. To make this even clearer, their speech is usually depicted with all capital letters.
  • 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 at first 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.
    • In the second book, Voortya's afterlife still exists even though Voortya herself does not. This is because of the Divine rules used to set up the place.
  • Not Quite Dead: It turns out that by the time City of Stairs is set, three divinities - Kolkan, Jukov, and Olvos - are actually still around, only the first two have been hidden away for a long time and the latter has voluntarily drawn away from mortals.
  • Oh My Gods!: Not used as much as one might think, due to the fact that names have power. The Saypuri, who never had a Divinity of their own (which some are quite upset about), customarily swear "by the seas" instead.
  • Only the Chosen May Wield: Voortya was the Divinity of War, and having reached the Vooryashtani afterlife, Mulaghesh ends up having to wield Voortya's Sword, which is only given to her because of her long and bloody history as a career soldier.
  • Only the Worthy May Pass: In order to enter Voortya's afterlife, a blood ritual must be performed and the blood used must belong to someone who has killed. Luckily, Mulaghesh, Sigrud and Signe all qualify.
  • Reality Warper: All the Divinities created their own realities that they imposed on the part of the Continent that they ruled over; in Bulikov, the Continent's capital, these different realities overlapped, which is one reason the world still behaves oddly in some places there by the time the trilogy is set. This trope also gets discussed in City of Miracles, with the Divinities' habit of editing history by literally wiping undesired people from existence mentioned.
  • 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.
  • Ritual Magic: Though the word magic is hardly used in the trilogy, most miracles work like rituals of varying complexity. Shara is an expert at using Divine miracles and also taught Sigrud a number of them.
  • Schizo Tech: The series as a whole is somewhere between Steampunk 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, trains and 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 '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 the 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.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: While the Divinities aren't evil per se, the Bulikovian restorationists in City of Stairs plot to release Kolkan and Jukov from where they have been held in order to help in their fight against Saypur. Since the gods Came Back Wrong (and Kolkan was something of a Mad God to begin with), it doesn't end well for anyone involved.
    • The entirety of Voortya's afterlife in City of Blades can be considered this. It's filled to the brim with undead warriors waiting to return to the living world to enact the revenge that their god promised them, and certain forces in Voortyashtan work to unseal it and bring on The End of the World as We Know It.
  • 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 Restorationists on his case, who want access to its stored miraculous items for their own means.
  • Secret War: There's one going on in City of Miracles, between Nokov and the other Divine children, and their respective allies.
  • 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. Also see Fantasy Pantheon above.
    • In an ironic turn of events, the Kaj himself was part Divine, though he didn't know this until the last Divinity around had told him. It was the only reason, in fact, why and how he managed to develop a weapon strong enough to kill the gods, as a non-Blessed human could not have accomplished that.
    • Played With in Shara, who initially is taken aback by the idea of all her achievements in life being due to her being a descendant of the Kaj, but she is then assured that she has not inherited enough of it for reality to warp itself around her.
    • Vinya Komayd, Shara's aunt and head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on the other hand, turns out to be Blessed, meaning her entire political career was not exactly her own achiement. Her bitterness over that discovery is what kicks the plot of City of Stairs off by ordering the death of Dr. Efrem Pangyui, who made the discovery in the first place.
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: For many centuries Saypur was considered the property of the Continent and its people were Born into Slavery. Although Saypur was freed and turned the tables on the Continent decades ago, Saypuri memory is long and there is still much lingering resentment against the Continent as a whole.
  • Someone Has to Do It: Voortya's afterlife is built in such a way that the presence of the god is a necessity. Since Voortya was killed by the Kaj, the afterlife forces a human visitor, Villaicha Thinadeshi, to take on the role. Later, Mulaghesh also briefly steps into it.
  • Speak of the Devil: Saying Nokov's name summons him. Which you usually want to avoid. To get around this, Sigrud and friends start referring to him as "our enemy".
  • Sympathetic P.O.V.: In the third book, the narration switches to Nokov's POV several times, allowing us to understand his motivations and feelings.
  • These Hands Have Killed: The source of Mulaghesh's trauma is having killed innocents when she first started out as a child soldier after being ordered to by her superior officer and not having questioned it. Her regrets over these actions define her later years as depicted in City of Blades.
    • Sigrud has killed so many, and regrets his actions so much, that by City of Miracles he has himself become a Death Seeker.
  • 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 Divinities 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, see Great Gazoo above.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Name: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, employer of Shara, Sigrud, and Mishra among others, is Saypur's intelligence agency.
  • 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. In a way, Nokov in City of Miracles also qualifies, at least in his own eyes.

Alternative Title(s): City Of Stairs


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