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City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
Book Name: City of Stairs
Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Publisher(s): Broadway Books
Formatt: Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: September 9, 2014

City of Stairs is the story of spies, murder (of both men and gods alike), hidden histories and the resulting lies that are taken as gospel, politics, finance, miracles, colonization and conquest, and more. While I’m listing this as epic fantasy, it has elements of noir, urban fantasy, and the new weird. I know this seems like a jumble of elements, and in the hands of a lesser author, these pieces wouldn’t join smoothly. But there’s a reason why Bennett is rightly proclaimed as one of the hot young authors in the genre: all the pieces meet seamlessly, forming a work of art that should be at the top of everyone’s too read pile. Oh, and if you’re not following Bennett on Twitter, you’re missing one of the most insane, hilarious accounts out there.

On the Continent, all talk of gods and miracles has been forbidden. No signs can be displayed and no forms of worship permitted, not since a rebellious Saypuri general rose up and drove the gods out of Bulikov. Without the gods, all miracles instantly disappeared. What once was a glorious city is now broken, scarred, weak. What once was the most powerful city in the world is reduced to poverty (Why learn science when the answer is “a god did it”? Why farm, when gods can produce food out of thin air?). Adding insult to injury, the former masters are now under the control of the Saypuri people—a reversal that the people of Bulikov detest. It’s no wonder then, that when Dr. Efrem Pangyui arrives from Saypur to study Bulikov’s forbidden history, he stirs up trouble, and is eventually murdered.

City of Stairs begins with Shara Thivani, a Saypuri diplomat who is more than she appears, arriving in Bulikov to investigate the murder of Dr. Pangyui. As she looks into his death, mysteries are revealed, lies are uncovered, and the world may never be the same again because the gods may not be gone after all.

Like in most quality spy stories, there aren’t really good guys or bad guys in City of Stairs, just lots of gray people simply trying to survive longer than their adversaries. Accordingly, Shara is not simply a diplomat, but a spy who once trained Dr. Pangyui in tradecraft. She’s also an expert in the Continent’s forbidden gods and a descendant of that god-killing general. She is also the product of all the propaganda surrounding Bulikov’s downfall and Saypur’s triumph that has been edited and rewritten so many times that it has become brittle, threatening to take down both countries.

And this complexity extends to the secondary characters as well. Shara’s secretary, Sigurd, is not simply Beowulf’s stunt double, but a sensitive, deep thinker. Mulaghesh is a “too old for this crap” general turned politician who can still give a Patton-worthy rallying speech, but deep down, just wants to retire with a tropical drink on the beach.

Of course, given such complex characters, conflict is inevitable. Bennett uses this conflict to generate a plot that quickly spirals outward from murder mystery to political thriller, to monster movie, to an earth-shattering battle between mortal and immortal. Things become so complicated and so terrible so quickly that I actually lost some sleep this past week reading City of Stairs because I didn’t want to stop reading.

And finally, Bennett’s worldbuilding is fantastic. There is a richness of detail and a depth of history that pervades the landscape and tints characters’ perspectives in a wonderful way. And this is vital because of how central the idea of a culture clash is to City of Stairs. Were these nations not so finely constructed, the story would be so much weaker.

This is Bennett’s first foray into secondary world fantasy, and I think it might serve as the perfect introduction to his work for fantasy readers. I think City of Stairs will more than demonstrate why Bennett has won a mantle’s worth of awards: his clever selection of detail, the honesty and depth with which he describes his characters, and his ability to use so many disparate elements to transcend genre set him apart from the crowd. I highly recommend this book, and I look forward to the sequel.


One Comment

  1. Avatar Ro Lamb says:

    Great novel!

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