Reading reviews of Robert Jackson Bennett’s CITY OF BLADES (cover by Sam Weber, all rights to current holder) it struck me that what most of the reviewers were impressed with (I’m talking review columns, not individuals on Goodreads) was not at all what I liked about it.
First, the story: grizzled Saypuri General Mulaghesh, a supporting character in City of Stairs, gets dragged from her retirement to investigate the disappearance of a Saypuri official in the city of Voortyashtan. Voortyashtan was the heart of the Divine Empire, which once ruled the world, until the Saypuri brought it down with anti-magic weaponry. Now they’re trying to rebuild the port city, despite the unrest of various local factions (it seems the Iraq War was a big influence on the politics here). And as Mulaghesh learned in the previous book, not all the miracles have gone …
I thoroughly enjoyed it, except for some awkward modern terminology (not totally inappropriate for the setting, but it jarred just the same). I like Mulaghesh as a middle-aged lead (much more interesting than the oldsters in Black Wolves), the magic set up is intriguing, and the story is solid. But most of the reviews I read didn’t think Bennett was that much as a storyteller, they liked him (to the extent they did) as a world-builder.
It’s not the first time I’ve seen a book recommended because of cool world-building, and it didn’t make sense to me then, either. I’ve seen many books where I love the setting and the premise, but for me world-building is only important to the extent it generates a great story and good characters. The depth that Tolkien gave to Middle Earth is impressive, but I’ve never had the slightest urge to read through those appendixes in LOTR. Elaborate magic systems, as I’ve mentioned before, usually bore me. As I mentioned in the Black Wolves review, endless exposition about culture, society and whatever usually leaves me cold if it’s not in the service of the story (or the characters). I had the same reaction to An Accident of Stars — the world is interesting, but nothing much is happening.
Yet obviously for lots of people the world-building is fascinating. And I can sort of understand it: I have the same reaction to super-hero comics. The endless details of how the Scarlet Witch’s powers or Superman’s abilities work are something I can immerse myself in happily. Ditto the details of real history. But fantasy worlds? I need to know as much as will advance the story or dramatize the characters’ reactions, but not much more than that (as I mentioned in the Black Wolves link, something I’m having to think about working on Southern Discomfort).
Does that indicate my writing is fundamentally out of sorts with what publishers and readers want? Maybe. Or maybe not: most of the Blades reviews on Goodreads liked Bennett’s story a lot more than the formal reviews. Whatever that signifies.