Book Review: The Divine Cities Trilogy

To sum up: you should read the Divine Cities Trilogy if you’re looking for something different.

Very, very different. The burgeoning empire of the Saypuri Republic, once slaves of the gods-blessed Continental imperium, slew the gods, causing whole miraculous cities to collapse, and essentially took their place. We start several generations after this war, a time when the teachings, artifacts, and magic of the dead gods are banned. As you might expect from this setup, things are more complex than anyone thought.

So a democratic empire with heavy basis in modern India crossed with imperial Britain has conquered and is colonizing a continent that seems Russian at the time of the stories, though from the descriptions was once nearer to Ancient Egypt. It’s different, at least up to the end.

The writing style is beautiful and the world is intriguing. How an industrializing world very similar to our own develops in these strange-yet-familiar cultures, while the touch of the divine is still felt, is an interesting situation that occurs in the background of all these stories. It is a huge influence on the plots and motivations—and also makes for some interesting settings for action scenes. The characters are unlike anything you find in most modern fantasy. These are not innocents or even that young. In City of Blades, the main character is an amputee. Their development is amazing and they are definitely archetypical heroes, appearances aside. You’ve got epic fantasy, spy thriller, mystery, and much more all wrapped up in every one of these books.

I say all this with some caveats: I personally find the trilogy’s ending disappointing and trite in a strange way. It is the end of wonder and the beginning, hardly utopian but it reeks of it anyway. I admit to being more fascinated by the ancient god-ruled empire than I am with the time the stories are set in. Seeing that all be tossed away without any chance of experience more of its strange, wild miracles is a bit sad. There is a lot of sympathy for that empire’s collapse and the losses incurred by that collapse are given their due, but it’s hard to see that splendor pass, even if it could be terrible and cruel. That’s an important theme, but the ending just seems to counter it. There is a radical tone change to a sentimentality that not even the happiest moments have earlier in the trilogy. It loses all grounding.

Do you remember the end of The Return of the King movie? It’s a lot like that. Caveat emptor and all.

This trilogy also thinks it is very clever. It gets a bit high on it from time, a fact you probably would only notice if you read too much as I do.  The final villain/hero—see, it thinks it’s clever—is obvious from the start if you’ve ever heard the riddle of the Sphinx or read about the myriad perils of time travel. The writing is wonderful, so this is not remotely intolerable and manages to hide some poor attempts at being romantic as well.  The quality of the writing also covers up what I think might be an excess of preachiness. You can’t seem to throw a stone at critically acclaimed science fiction and fantasy without hitting a dozen books with this problem, most of them not nearly as well-written, so my recommendation of the trilogy stands.

The Divine Cities Trilogy is a great ride through a bizarre and fascinating world alongside some interesting heroic people. The wonderful writing makes it a pleasant set of reads and the pacing is so excellent you’ll find all three hard to put down. They have very clear flaws and I doubt I will ever sort out what’s so wrong with that ending, but catch them on sale if you can. You can, of course, find these books on Amazon and I have also seen them in bookstores (when I feel like getting tea made by someone else or I am waiting for an appointment).

Published by kathrynzurmehly

I am, among many other things, an Army vet and a freelance writer.

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