I’m stoked to bring you today’s Author Query. Last year I read and loved Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs and I’m currently in the midst of his City of Blades, which I’m loving just as much. But RJB isn’t just a great author, he also writes interesting articles on his blog and his Twitter feed is always interesting, whether you like witnessing off-the-wall author interactions, political commentary, or the plain weird, Bennett has it all on his feed. I was excited when I got the chance to interview him and he had some interesting answers to my questions.
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Robert Jackson Bennett?
Me, a writer! I’m just some guy who writes books.
How would you introduce people to General Turyin Mulaghesh, the protagonist of City of Blades?
I actually think the first scene of her in the book tells you everything you need to know about her: you first see her half-drunk, pretty angry, holding a very large weapon, and pretty pleased to be doing so. This, of course, takes place while Mulaghesh is trying very hard to be a retired person and not think about the military anymore – but she can’t help but feel enthusiastic when circumstances force her to act.
While set in the same world as City of Stairs, City of Blades doesn’t seem to be a straight up sequel; it is set in a different city, has a different protagonist, and instead of a murder mystery seems to be more of a spy story. Is that a correct impression? And if so, does that mean readers can start out with City of Blades before reading City of Stairs?
They can. They might miss some of the atmosphere and backstory that’s built up to City of Blades, but it’s its own self-contained story, focusing on one character, one city, and the problems presented to each of them. It is a little more espionage focused, but it’s still quite mystery-oriented: the Continent abounds in mysteries and strangeness and questions.
While Bulikov was the setting for City of Stairs, and was very urban and noirish, City of Blades is set in a much more barren and brutal region, in Voortyashtan, once the city of the goddess of war and death. The setting, like the story, is moodier, darker, and grislier than City of Stairs was.
As it should be, since it’s about war.
What I loved about Shara was that she was a mature character, Turyin is well past her prime (don’t tell her I said that), and both of them are capable and experienced women well into their chosen career path. That’s an unusual choice in many — if not most — epic fantasy novels, where heroes and heroines are often young and there is many a coming of age arc present. What drew you to these older characters and was it a conscious choice or is that just what the story dictated?
Technically you come into your prime as an authority figure in your late forties and early fifties – so if you’re going by buying and deciding power, your fifties are probably your prime.
But I agree with you, I didn’t see many women of a mature age doing cool things in genre fiction – or perhaps I wasn’t reading the right stuff. Either way, when I started writing Shara and especially Mulaghesh, and made them competent, practical, effective characters, it felt like a dangerous, subversive act – which is a pretty sad thing to say, really.
I had actually intended to write Mulaghesh as a man at the start, a sort of blustery old general that Shara could manipulate – but I found that boring. I remember I was parked in the driveway of my in-laws, and it was dark and raining, and I suddenly had the idea – why not make her a woman? An older woman who knew what she was about and suffered fools poorly? Then she suddenly came to life.
The questions raised in City of Stairs about the theological and philosophical ramifications of having your pantheon murdered were fascinating to me. You suggest a lot possible answers, but never give a definitive one. Will City of Blades shed more light on these questions?
Somewhat. City of Blades is concerned with one of the key aspects of religion – what happens after you die? For certain people, religion is just the mechanism by which they are delivered to the best possible afterlife. But what happens to all the people in that afterlife when the god who made it dies? It’s a really troubling thought. You worked really hard to get there, you did a lot of difficult things, you lived your life in all these measured, disciplined ways – and now it’s all meaningless. If I were a dead person, I would be most displeased.
For more of the guts of Divine workings, you’ll have to wait for the final book, City of Miracles.
One of the central conflicts in the world of the Divine Cities is that between the Saypurians and the Continentals. The coloniser becoming the colonised is a intriguing premise; what sparked the idea to explore it?
I was really more intrigued by the effects of power. A lot of The Divine Cities focuses on how power warps reality: either literally, as the Divinities can change reality on a whim, or figuratively, as Saypur edits and controls the Continent’s perception of its own reality. (As well as the reality of its own citizens, as the Saypuri authorities claim all the efforts are going quite swimmingly, when in truth their policies are accomplishing almost nothing.)
So it’s this fascinating idea of how you’re going to change once you inherit that position of power. Are you going to be any better than the last guy? Or are you just going to a slight variation on a theme? And if so – how do you break that cycle?
What’s next for you? Any appearances or conventions planned?
I’ll be at ConFusion toward the end of the month, but my second child is due in May, so I’m keeping my schedule clear.
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
I’m pretty into clean technology, as well as technology in general. For a long time technology has been about improving the lives of the people who can afford it. But now, as materials and processes have gotten phenomenally cheaper in the past few years, we’re going to see technology have a measurably positive impact in the places that need the most help. Communication and finance will be first – but once people can make and store a lot of their own power, that will substantially change the balance of power in the world. It’ll cause a lot of chaos, sure, but the overall results will be positive.
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
I’ve been reading a lot of history recently, mostly nonfiction. But Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly is quite good. Check it out.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
I arrange my books in giant, disorganized piles on my nightstand, which my wife tells me to do something about every fiscal quarter, when she can stand it no longer.
Bio: Robert Jackson Bennett is a two-time award winner of the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel, an Edgar Award winner for Best Paperback Original, and is also the 2010 recipient of the Sydney J Bounds Award for Best Newcomer, and a Philip K Dick Award Citation of Excellence. His fifth novel, City of Stairs, is in stores now.