Exclusives

Robert Jackson Bennett on Closing Out His Series with City of Miracles

 

Cover details for The Divine Cities series by Robert Jackson Bennett/Penguin Random House ©

One of the first people to read City of Stairs was a friend of mine. He said some very nice things upon finishing it, but ended with, “You are a little bit obvious in setting up the sequel, though.”

This surprised me. “There isn’t going to be a sequel,” I said.

He paused, and stared at me. “Really?” he said.

“Yes.”

He looked at me hard. He knew a lot more about modern fantasy than I did – like some chefs, I don’t often eat what I cook. So I was more than a little unnerved when he then asked me, “Are you sure?”

At the time, I was. The story as I’d always planned it was over, because stories are primarily about questions – and often those questions are the ones the main characters have about themselves.

Shara Komayd had been carrying a lot of questions about herself at the start of City of Stairs. By the end of it, those questions had been answered. There was no more of that story to tell, I said to myself.

But I knew I was wrong. I knew that the real reason I didn’t want to think about what would happen next in all the lives of these characters was that much of what would happen would be bad. As Orson Welles once said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”

I knew that Shara would ascend to a position of power. She would try to make things better. And, because I knew the shape and nature of this world I had written, I knew she would largely fail, and fall from grace, and no one would think much of her for years and years until they slowly realized that, although they hadn’t noticed it at the time, she had actually changed everything.

This is the way the world in The Divine Cities works. This is also, I personally think, how the real world works.

Change is hard. As a character says in City of Miracles, “A better world comes not in a flood, but with a steady drip, drip, drip. Yet it feels at times that every drop is bought with sorrow and grief.”

And this is why I found myself exceedingly reluctant to continue the series. Not because there was no story – once I thought about it, there were lots of stories, really – but because I was starting to understand what this series was really about.

If The Divine Cities is about anything, it is about trauma, and change. These are stories of pain, and grief, and grudges – some personal, others cultural, or Divine. They are stories of bruised idealists struggling to figure out what to do with all their pain and grief. Each character is presented with the same question, in a way – “Can you move past this? Can we move past this?” – and each one answers it in their own manner.

It is somewhat appropriate that it is Sigrud who is the final focus of The Divine Cities, for Sigrud has a remarkable ability to attract and bear pain. But Sigrud’s pain in City of Miracles is, I think, an unusual one.

It is an adult pain, a mundane fear. It is not the fear of monsters, or gods, or the unnatural, but rather the simple and far more terrifying fear of outlasting those you love. The fear of seeing your friends fail, and get old, and give up. The fear of seeing the things you built get undermined, and slowly dissolve. The fear of outliving your children.

The fear, in other words, of trauma, and change.

This was one reason why I wrote The Divine Cities as I did. The series does take place in an everlasting medieval land, but during a period of unprecedented technological, social, and political upheaval. Ideas, technologies, and, yes, even gods, are formulated and abandoned during the twenty-year course of the series. The characters do not stay young, or potent, or relevant. Some succeed, some fail. Sometimes their success or failure is justified; other times, it isn’t.

If there is a villain in The Divine Cities, it is time itself. And in City of Miracles, the battle against that particular villain reaches a new intensity.

I did not write this series to be especially pertinent, or timely. I think I told my agent I just wanted to write a “gosh-wow fantasy story.” But today, as many in fear, or anxiety, or despair, some of the moments in City of Miracles suddenly feel starkly relevant to me in a way I did not expect. It is a very odd thing, to read passages I wrote months if not years ago, and find myself taking guidance from the comments of my own characters in my gosh-wow fantasy story.

And yet that’s what I find myself doing, as I end this series. I, like my own characters, like many people I know, am struggling to deal with change.

It is worth remembering that for all its chaos, and turbulence, and disruption, not all change is bad. Even now, more than two years after I wrote it, I find myself returning to a comment Shara makes in City of Miracles: “Change is a slow flower to bloom. Most of us will not see its full radiance. We plant it not for ourselves, but for future generations. But it is worth tending to. Oh, it is so terribly worth tending to.”