Nicking from Novels: Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Miracles

This post is a first for Nicking from Novels—I’m going back to an author I’ve already written about, a series I’ve already written about. (I sort of went there when I covered Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionovar Tapestry in a single post, though.) We’re going back to Bulikov today, site of Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs. Why? Because his conclusion to the trilogy made me do this:

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been one of those slightly-too-cool kids who can’t help throwing qualifiers even at the stuff I love the most. I don’t take pride in it (anymore), but I can pick out flaws around the edges of just about anything. (Thank you again, graduate school.) What I’m trying to get at is that I don’t do “Holy shit!” reactions. Once every few years, maybe. Mr. Bennett’s City of Miracles provoked one. After re-reading it, I’ll go ahead and say it earned one. This is a book that made me tear up a little with just this line:

“‘Okay,’ she says quietly. ‘Okay.’”

So we’re starting with pretty much the most enthusiastic recommendation I can give. If you like books (and I can’t imagine you reading this post if you don’t), go out and find these books. City of Stairs, City of Swords, and City of Miracles. Got it? Good. Because now I’m going to try and be all smart and writerly like these posts are supposed to be.

Overview

Like its predecessors, City of Miracles sits somewhere between the genre expectations of fantasy and science fiction. Miracles are part of the setting’s fabric. More than in the preceding novels, the divine is part of City of Miracles’ characters. You won’t find wizards running around, nor laser pistols, but you won’t miss them.

Miracles jumps more than a decade past Blades, which itself jumps ahead a few years from Stairs. The novel begins with the assassination of Shara Komayd (can’t be a spoiler if it’s on the book’s back cover!). Shara was the protagonist of the trilogy’s first novel, and has subsequently risen to and fallen from political power on the strengths (and weaknesses) of her revolutionary politics. Miracles follows Sigrud je Harkvaldsson, who I described thusly based on the first novel: “[Shara’s] Dreyling ‘secretary.’ (Said secretary writes most of his memos in the blood of his enemies.)” That’s still true as Sigrud pursues first Shara’s murderer, then the backer of said murderer.

His pursuit takes him to various cities on the Continent and on Saypur, and eventually back to Bulikov, City of Stairs, haven of miracles, and historically messed up place. There’s action, and mystery, and, most importantly, real humanity underlying all the explosions and miraculous happenings.

The Plot

As mentioned, Sigrud pursues Shara’s murderer. He’s dealing with his own burdens—atrocities he has committed as a Saypuri agent, the murders he committed in a rage after his daughter died, a pervasive existential bleakness. (There are lots of dad feelings in the novel, too.) Sigrud’s investigations lead him to Shara’s adopted daughter and to divine conflicts that have their roots in the first novel and beyond. The novel’s finale does a phenomenal job of tying loose ends together. It also saves the world in a profound way without fixing everything.

The Cool Thing to Consider

So many! This is such a good book and such a fitting end to the trilogy. The characterization makes me jealous; I’ve not read much (and not yet written much) that makes even wildly improbable characters real people. Bennett captures the motivations and humanity of characters that appear even in isolated scenes that exist mostly to demonstrate that the Big Bad is, in fact, big and bad. Sigrud himself has come a long way (both as a character and fictional person) from simply being Shara’s enforcer. I’ve got a soft spot for heroes whose defining attribute is preternatural resilience. Sigrud’s resilience actually becomes a significant plot point for the novel—another great bit about it.

The defining Cool Thing about this novel, though, is the way that it is profoundly moral without moralizing. If Stairs was about history’s inescapability, and Blades was about the persistence of war, Miracles wraps those into broader questions about power and power’s legacy, about the human and moral costs of necessity and perceived necessity.

Ancient children populate the fringes of the novel, trapped in repetition because a dead divinity made them that way. The “mere mortals” of the book, most of whom are aging and scarred by past battles, intrude on these repeating patterns. As an adult, what do you do with petulant, eternal teenagers who happen to be able to rewrite parts of reality? How do you choose to influence power? How do you try to teach it? How do you break cycles? Should you even try?

Bennett is good enough at his craft that he doesn’t need characters to ask these questions explicitly, nor to speechify with their answers. Conversations that directly address the novel’s moral center are rare, and happen when there are enough significant plot elements in play that they do not distract. The moral questions are part and parcel of “what do you do when the world is falling apart?” (I wish that question were less timely.)

How, though? This is the part where we try to figure out how it all works, to distill some element of a novel into something you can nick, something that’s a writing tip without being banal enough to appear across a hundred different amateur writing blogs. How, specifically, does Bennett make Miracles moral stakes work?

Some of the answer hops back a paragraph: Bennett knows how to make words do things. When you have enough control over your tools, you can make miracles (sorry) happen. The path to craft is to read and write and read and write and let other people tell you what’s not working so you can go back to reading and writing and getting better.

Beyond Bennett’s craft, though, what makes the morality of City of Miracles work is the close relationship between the interior and exterior conflicts. Conflict drives plot. Fiction 101. Characters need some degree of internal conflict to be interesting—second week of Fiction 101. We find exterior conflict easily enough: the Fellowship versus Sauron, John McClane versus Hans Gruber, Harry versus Voldy. Fantasy and science fiction, when they’re the most “genre-y” tend to fixate on the external conflict. Internal conflicts get reduced to “character Z needs to believe in herself” or “character N has feelings about his dad.” Those conflicts get sorted out not as part of the exterior conflict, but as something that needs to happen on the way. When character Z believes in herself, she can use the mcguffin to zap the Big Bad, for example.

City of Miracles transcends that. Sigrud, creature of violence, comes to moral understandings about himself and the world. His answers are not incidental to the broader “save the world” conflict. His answers are the resolution to that conflict. By the novel’s climax, there’s no meaningful division between Sigrud answering his moral questions and Sigrud leaping off a staircase hundreds of feet in the air.

That is how the novel manages to be profoundly moral without moralizing. Literature is a hell of a drug.

What We Nick from this Novel

Characters pick their battles for a reason. Know it.

Sometimes, battles are forced upon us, and we make the stories as we go. Even then, there must be reasons to fight, to pursue conflict rather than surrender. Even in situations where the choice is “fight or die,” the external conflict can’t be everything. The relationship between internal and external conflict does not have to be, as it is in City of Miracles, one that is ultimately congruent. Contrast can be powerful. Whatever you, as a writer, choose, make sure it’s a choice, not just a default or a placeholder. The more you understand the relationship between your characters’ interior conflicts and the external conflicts of your story, the better you’ll be able to tell it.

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