When it comes to fantasy novels, most writers will tell you their biggest influences are other fantasy writers: J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, etc. But in talking about City Of Miracles (paperback, digital, audiobook), the third and final book in his Divine Cities trilogy — which started with 2014’s City Of Stairs and continued with 2016’s City Of Blades — writer Robert Jackson Bennett cites a certain iconic spymaster as having a much bigger impact on this last installment, and the series as a whole.
Photo Credit: Josh Brewster Photography
For those who are unfamiliar with the previous books, what is the Divine Cities trilogy about, what is City Of Miracles about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the previous novels, City Of Blades and City Of Stairs?
Think of the Greek pantheon of gods. Now imagine that those gods are very real, and their divine powers are at the disposal of one nation. You can imagine what that nation then does: empire, slavery, and hegemony.
But then someone finds a way to kill the gods, bringing that nation to utter ruin. There’s a tremendous power vacuum, and one of the former colonies steps in, trying to fill the divine gap with trade and technology.
Except, are the gods really gone? And even if they are, how should the world proceed? Is it possible to move past these horrendous conflicts?
The Divine Cities trilogy looks at three different characters trying to navigate these waters. All of them are involved in the shadowy, grungy work of statecraft, some utilizing the pen, others the dagger. City Of Miracles is the last dip into this world, and we see how previous efforts have failed or succeeded, and where everyone tries to go from there.
At what point did you decided that the first book in this series, City Of Stairs, would not be a stand-alone novel, but would, instead, be the first in a trilogy?
Basically, I had a lot of people say to me, “But there’s more, yeah? I mean, you did all this work. There’s got to be more.” And I kept saying no, there’s not, this is it. Yet eventually I realized that the problem wasn’t that there wasn’t any more story in this world, it’s that there wasn’t any more story in this world in which Shara, the main character of City Of Stairs, would be the protagonist. Her story was done, and I didn’t want to tamper with it.
I tried to think of a new entry, and I realized that Shara was naturally going to want to change things, but who implements those changes? And the answer to that was the military and police force, which of course led me to Mulaghesh being the main character in City Of Blades, and the whole story went from there.
But, on the flipside of that, can someone read City Of Miracles without reading the previous two books?
Sure they can. Some have already on Goodreads, to my surprise, and given it good reviews. This wasn’t my intention; I had intended this book to be much more in conversation with the previous two than City Of Blades was with City Of Stairs. But it seems to have worked out all right.
I don’t think of the series as one big novel, really. A novel, to me, is a self-contained story, and each entry into this trilogy is a self-contained story, one that plays out within a small window of time set in this world. One of the inspirations for this move was the TV show The Wire, which made the then somewhat revolutionary choice of stepping away from its main cast between seasons three and four and focusing on other players. It made you very aware that there was a whole world happening beyond the confines of this narrative. I figured, hell, if they can do it, I might as well try.
[John le Carre’s] The Honourable Schoolboy, the sequel to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, was also a big inspiration. That book moves away from London and George Smiley, and instead focuses on a spy heading up one of Smiley’s operations in a distant country. You get to see how these moves within London are amplified elsewhere, with huge and often tragic effects. It’s good to step outside of things, for this reason.
So did City Of Miracles end up being what you originally envisioned, or did it change in any substantial way as you were writing it?
Kind of. Way back when I was first writing City Of Blades, the last entries were going to be far, far more epic, and I had initially planned City Of Miracles to be two books, and be more about this grand, Divine war…but I think my editor knew, and I likely knew as well, that this would have been breaking away from the soul and cadence of the series, which tells much more focused stories within this larger frame. To try and make it larger would have been something of a betrayal.
Then I wrapped City Of Blades up and immediately realized what City Of Miracles needed to be. City Of Miracles is both the biggest story and the smallest story of the three. It captures a lot of the themes of the previous entries and blows them up to grand proportions, but at heart it’s the story of one man, alone, trying to figure out his grief and his guilt.
In writing City Of Miracles, did you ever think of something and then realizing you couldn’t do it because of something you’d done in City Of Stairs or City Of Blades?
Not really, as far as I recall. I think the worst offense that I committed was actually when I was writing City Of Blades, I had written a private timeline for all the events in this world, and I knew Mulaghesh had been a veteran of this war…but then when I checked the date of this war, I realized she had not been born by that period. I frantically confirmed that I had never stated the date of this war in City Of Stairs, and just changed the date of the war on my private timeline.
What I am saying here is that world building is often very stupid.
So do you think there’s any writer or book that was a big influence on City Of Miracles, but one that wasn’t as much of an influence on City Of Stairs or City Of Blades?
Not one that stands apart from City Of Blades or City Of Stairs. I pull a lot from John le Carre in these books. They’re functionally just spy thrillers, and they even follow the structure of The Quest For Karla. I do think of City Of Blades as being the Divine corollary to The Honorable Schoolboy, for example. And Smiley’s People has a lot in common with City Of Miracles, being as their both about the children of the great players in this game, and how the authorities affect the lives of generations to come.
When I interviewed you previously about City Of Stairs [which you can read here], I asked you about why you had made the religious aspect of the book so complicated, and you said, “I think if you come away with any of my books with more answers than you do questions, I did a bad job.” Does that apply to City Of Miracles and thus this series as a whole?
Having read the ending, I can say yes.
This series has been a bit of a genre bender, mixing elements of fantasy, spy novels, and a murder mystery. Is your thinking that your next book will be something simple, like a love story?
I believe it’s being pitched as a cyberpunk story set in a magical, Renaissance setting, if that answers your question.
Interesting. So, has there been any talk of making a movie or TV show based on this series?
It’s being shopped around. I’ve seen the pitch, and it’s amazing. That’s about all I can say at the moment.
What do you think would work best, a movie or a TV series?
TV series. You can just do a lot more there. And there seems to be much, much more innovation in that space than film these days.
So if it was up to you, who would you like them to cast in the main roles, and why them?
I plead the fifth on this one.
Finally, if someone’s enjoyed City Of Stairs, City Of Blades, and City Of Miracles, what book by someone else would you suggest they read and why?
I would suggest [John le Carre’s] The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which is easily one of the best books of the 20th century. It should weigh heavily on everyone’s minds as our various nation states attempt to firm themselves up, and grow increasingly belligerent in the process. It captures in the most devastating fashion that there is no such thing as a bloodless war.