April 10, 2021, 10:20:01 PM

Author Topic: Reviews of City of Stairs by the members here( Spoilers)  (Read 705 times)

Offline eclipse

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Reviews of City of Stairs by the members here( Spoilers)
« on: November 24, 2019, 09:41:47 AM »

Spoiler for Hiden:
Kinda of torn in rating it. I loved the worldbuilding, backstory and the divinities idea. The magic also bends my way in how mysterious and wondrous it is, instead of being set in stone like Magical Commandments.
However, I also had problems with pace, meandering and infodumping.

This kinda of remembered me of Sanderson's Mistborn. Overall, it's a more mature Mistborn.
This means the politics and intrigue are better and deeper, there's sex and swearing. Everybody is also an adult. Characterization is better and the writing flows much more smoothly.

But I think it lacked presentation and focus. While the best parts for me were the worldbuilding and backstory, City of Stairs starts so front loaded with it and the beginning feels really long.

It starts with a "biblical" quotation, and a courtroom with what appears to be filled with the main characters (Yaroslav, Chief Diplomat Troonyi, Prosecutor Jindash, etc) and then they just disappear. A murder happens and from the tone it looked like an Emperor died, but it was an historian. Then the MC arrives, has her present mission and backstories with two or three characters, etc.
Add to all this a lot of names of people, places, gods and dates being thrown in and it becomes really hard to connect and care for something at the beginning.

Took more than a third or even halfway through to really immerse in it. Then it was smooth sailing.

Shara and Sigrud are good characters, even though Sigrud looks overpowered as hell. (view spoiler)

The secondary characters suffer from the same problem in Mistborn, they are one dimensional and when it appears they will be more fleshed out they disappear for most of the story (Vohaness, Mulaghesh, Pitryi, Vinya).

Like in Mistborn subsequent books, what kept me going was the backstory before a chapter begins. Those were amazing, and often left me wondering how that wasn't the main story: A continent without any gods that is conquered by one with six, who really have the power to create stuff out of thin air. Someone finds a way to kill them, rallies the people, crosses the ocean, kills the freaking gods and they become conquerors themselves, all this with some gruesome revelations about the hero.

Much better than a lot of parts of the main story, that meandered a lot, undecided between a murder mystery, a love story, a fanatic terrorist group, the divinities disappearance and politics.

I really had problems with the infodumps. There were really a lot of them and not really well disguised to feel natural. There's also a lot of telling on what characters feeling about things.

Initially everyone says how the Continent is resentful of Saypur. It opens with a judgment. Everyone says there are factions plotting, everyone wants their gods back to bring them back prosperity. Vohaness keeps telling how Saypur needs to help the Continent and its poverty, etc.

All this is told but when shown... none of it actually happens. Things seems actually the opposite.
Shara has no problems walking around the city, attending parties and visiting shops even later when she appears on newspapers.
The book gives the impression that there are revolutionary groups of thousands or millions of supporters, but the entire problems are caused by like, a dozen or so fanatic acolytes.

At one point a mythical creature appears, is killed, makes it in all the newspapers and nobody questions "Wow, that creature is alive? Does that mean it's possible some of our gods are still alive too?" Nobody raises the question or think about it. In fact, they don't even seen to remember their divinities because even when they do appear no one seems to recognize or care and one wonders why Saypur is worrying so much. (No spoilers, from that cover you know a god is gonna appear in the story!)

I think the author was exploring "history erasure and suppression" themes but it was not how it looked like from the beginning. We keep being told how resentful the Continent was. It looked like there was a major uprising coming, but the whole thing was just about two dozen people.

The city of Bulikov is great. The backstory of the war and investigation and notes of the professor were awesome.
The concept of the Divinities (and their History) was amazing. Specially as it goes on and more is slowly revealed. The division of cities was great. And to how and why they do the things they do.

On Mistborn (somehow I kept comparing this to Mistborn) religion plays a major role too. Sanderson is a religious guy and have a favorable view on religion, but doesn't shy away from questioning it and showing other ugly sides of it.

I felt in here it was kinda of one sided. Not that it couldn't be, but the story seemed to focus all the fanaticism and the bizarreness of some beliefs of one of the gods as a "this is how religion is" thing.
But earlier it presented amazing buildings, the lack of disease and many other stuff that greatly improved the country. And there was no voice for that to make it a little more grey.

Worse, the villains (the people fighting to bring a god back to restore the country) aren't good. They are the really evil and despicable type, but not in a good manner.
They hate homosexuals, the MC's skin color, are religious fanatic and to top all that, they are also crazy and violent, hitting the very people they want to save and also so comically incompetent it's not even funny.

They also give the impression they are millions, but it's actually just a few dozen crazy guys making a lot of noise.

It's kinda of impossible not to correlate this to a facet of our world's modern politics.

Of course such people exist, but in a story, when every single one of them, the lowest worshiper to the deity itself, are constantly shown and described as so evil and despicable, the story loses a lot of tension for me because there was no hard choices for the main characters, no questioning, no discussions between other readers, etc.

Specially when the story show us that the Continent is now the conquered and oppressed country and the MC and her country the oppressors.
There was a lot of grey area possible to explore this, but sadly the antagonists are simply caricatures of far-right extremists.

The builder gods who served to construct the city (society) die pretty early (religion's usefulness is no more), and the only surviving gods (aspects of religion) are the one representing lies and deceitfulness, arbitrary and ridiculous rules coupled with sexual obsession (they are even fused, if the message wasn't clear) and another, portrayed as good and inoffensive, that grows trees, loves nature and creates living cities.

It doesn't take too much thinking to correlate the allegories, specially considering the divine most talked about in the book. It's initially elegantly provoking, but later, and coupled with the caricature portrayal of the antagonists, it sounded too soapbox preachy at parts.

Despite my issues with the presentation, the creativity and originality is very high in here. Definitely memorable. And also poses a lot of questions as to how the story will continue after what happened at the end.


Spoiler for Hiden:
I am not typically that taken with crime books, so I have to confess it took about 5 or 6 tries for me to essentially get through the first scene of this book (it starts in a courtroom). I don’t know, I think its just a mental problem on my part. But eventually I persevered, and got past it. Keep in mind, I don’t suspect many will have any issues with that first scene, but for me, any book that opens in a courtroom seems to be at a disadvantage in maintaining my interest. But, luckily, the story does not stay in the courtroom, and as long as it took me to get through it, I have to admit there is a lot of really good information to be had from that first scene.

Our protagonist, Shara, is of Saypurian descent, and is sent to Bulikov to investigate the murder of a professor she both knew and respected. He had been studying the Divinities and trying to discover how the Kaj had been able to kill them. The investigation introduces us to a variety of characters: Shara’s old lover from the University, her imposing and mysterious Aunt who is also her boss. And of course, one of my favorite parts of this book was Shara’s bodyguard/sidekick. A typically quiet, but giant Dreyling, Sigrud is imposing and at times quite violent. Word of advice, don’t shoot Sigrud. Especially not with an arrow. Sigrud provided not just muscle, but also a form of comic relief in his over the top-ness.

I am really torn as to my overall impression of this book, which makes this review quite hard to write. I enjoyed it, the world became fascinating, and I did get quite pulled into Shara’s story. This is a book that got progressively better for me as I read, starting from making myself get through the court scene in the beginning, slowly becoming interested, to being captivated by the ending. So, do I rate it solely based on my impression at the ending, or do I weigh in the slow start? I suppose the payoff is more important than anything else, that’s the whole purpose of the book is to journey towards the end of the story. I suspect ultimately that this will not be my favorite of Bennett’s books. But I quite enjoyed so there’s no question that I will read others, to me that says something

Spoiler for Hiden:
I think I should no longer keep unfinished books in my bedroom. It is bad for my sleep.

This, I feel, is an uneven book. Sometimes it is high action. Sometimes it is all backstory. A lot of it is quite slow in just about every sense, other than the worldbuilding. People will tell you the worldbuilding here is fantastic. They are right. The worldbuilding and the magic are the best things here. I am wary of books where people say that and, much as I enjoyed this at the last, it hasn't altered my perception on the score. Things tend to go missing when those things are the star of the show.

What goes missing here, I think, is the author's working out for character and plot logic. There's a few twists that feel a little dissatisfying or go by a little fast (not a good thing in an espionage novel). There's quite a few unanswered questions about the characters, a lot of whom never really become more than stock supporting roles. As a result, I didn't get the emotional connection that really superpowers a book for me until right near the end. If I'd never got it all, this would be a 3 or less, but I did.

So a 4 it is. If one has a hankering for intrigue, worldbuilding, magic and philosophical musings - the score is solid or even stingy. Those looking mainly for character, plot, and books without present tense will probably find it dropping to a 3 - although that's normally me, and it didn'ton this occasion.

Lady Ty

Spoiler for Hiden:
City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett is the first book in The Divine Cities series and will be high on my list of favourite books this year. A strange and fascinating world and its history with divinity myths, politics, rebellions and intrigue all woven together with the investigation of a crime as the basis. It lives up to all that is promised in the summary and introduces some well rounded, articulate, intelligent characters with whom you can empathise.

The book begins with a court scene in Saypur, the authoritarian and bureaucratic state separated by sea from the Continent it now rules. Once the dominant powers, under divine rule and protection, the states of the Continent are powerless and resentful. The Gods are gone, religion no longer officially acceptable and Saypur is a tough unforgiving master, remembering the wrongs it suffered long ago.

Shades of Stalinist Russia are all through this book, but there are many other cultural and political references that click as you read, clear echoes of our world's problems without being forced, as well as much wonderfully imaginative invention.

The beginning of the book may seem slow but the pace speeds up and towards the end certainly becomes a headlong rush against time, nail-biting and nerve wracking in a good way.

The two female leads, Shara Thivani, the diplomat/spy and Mulaghesh, the local military commander in Bulikov were excellent characters. They were tough, resilient, practical, and Mulaghesh's wry humour in particular provided a balance with Shara's intense concentration and concern. Sigrud, the Dreyling of unusual race made an effective bodyguard/companion and was intriguing. He deserves more exposure, I'm glad he will feature in further books of this series.

Other prominent and interesting characters were introduced and different emotions stirred. Be prepared for some serious Grim. Some of those old Gods were beneficent, as long as you obeyed the rules to the letter, and you may be showered with wonderful miracle treats – but retribution for an accidental slip was fast and cruel.

The narrator of this audible version, Alma Cuervo differentiated and enlivened all the characters well and added to the overall enjoyment.

This is a complex and very rewarding book which has much of interest and detail to offer and enjoy. Look forward to the rest of the series and glad to recommend.


Spoiler for Hiden:
This was a stonkingly good fantasy novel. So many ideas, and so much enjoyable, meaningful and interesting action. It not only hits philosophical points relevant to colonialism, the endless cycle of revenge-violence, Cold War espionage, the underlying problems with the Treaty of Versailles, the Marshall Plan, self-fulfilling religion, and problems of historical erasure... but it also contains a greased-up naked barbarian going hand-to-hand (or, er, tentacle) with an enormous hell-kraken. (Though entertaining as Sigrud was throughout, the amazing ladies - spy and general both - were the stand-out rip-roaring keepers of this novel.)


Spoiler for Hiden:
So China Mieville, John Le Carre and Steven Erikson all go for a drink and get to talking. They put their heads together and come up with this crazy epic murder mystery set in a world where the Gods are dead and after the ensuing war the victors hold power over the losers in a cold war-like situation. Into this maelstrom come a sharp-talking diplomat and her crazy, Viking-like secretary (cough) to investigate the murder of an eminent historian who just might have been onto something regarding the true origins of the war and the Divinities (Gods) who used to rule everything. They throw in a setting which is partly based on our own Cold War era Eastern Europe, some monsters that would make Lovecraft cower and a plethora of weirdly magical artifacts: flying carpets and hidden portals, bottomless bags and orbs of sunlight. Meanwhile, as the three are finishing off their drinks and laughing over their combined genius, Robert Jackson Bennett has long since beaten them to it.

The imagination in this book is quite literally out of this world. It’s like someone just kicked open a box of nightmares and took notes. The centrepiece of the story is the city of Bulikov, the titular City of Stairs. Originally filled with the most amazing wonders of the world (streets made of marble, houses of white and gold, giant towers and incredible fountains) the city is now a torn-apart wreck where all of the Divine masterworks have disappeared. With the death of the Divinities the city is a husk of its former self. All that’s left are giant lone spiral staircases that open out into…well, who knows? It’s one of the most amazing settings I’ve come across in fantasy, hands down, with a depth that’s rarely found – and all in a 400 page novel. It’s hardly a doorstopper. There’s a rich history and culture that permeates the story and enriches everything about Bulikov – and the aforementioned magical artifacts that make up much of the fantastical elements in the story are genuinely creative and immensely satisfying to read about.

The characters are very well realised. Refreshingly, the cast – for an epic fantasy – is relatively small, focusing only on a handful of characters with a few supporting ones here and there. Shara and Sigrud are the main ‘duo’ of the story, with the Viking-like barbarian lunatic Sigrud in particular stealing pretty much any scene he’s a part of. Shara acts as our central character – a strong-willed and highly intelligent diplomat who’s more of a detective here; she’s likeable, enigmatic and makes for a very good main character indeed. Filling out the cast is Mulaghesh, a hardened older woman who just wants to retire to the sun but finds herself dragged into Shara’s situation and finally, Vohannes. But the less said about Vohannes the better.

The plot is excellent, remaining focused and tight-paced throughout. Things move mostly at a steady but fast pace, with revelations every few pages and some incredible set-pieces. Like any good mystery novel the plot becomes more and more tangled the further it goes but eventually everything is pulled to a satisfying ending that leaves no stone unturned. My only gripe would be that the beginning of the novel was a little slow to get started, with a heavy focus on the bizarre politics of Bulikov which made it slightly challenging to get my head round. Likewise, the ending is all a bit rushed. Nothing is left hanging (although presumably there will be a sequel) but the explanations and revelations are piled one on top of the other in the final chapter, making it all feel a bit heavy and bloated with exposition. Maybe there’s a reason why epic fantasies are doorstoppers – City of Stairs could perhaps have done with another 50 pages of breathing space at the end.

City of Stairs is a refreshing fantasy that takes risks that pay off in spades. The world is weird and unusual with a cast and plot that remains tight and focused from beginning to end. I reviewed Bennett’s The Troupe last year and thought it was one of the best fantasy horrors I’d read in a long time. City of Stairs is Bennett’s first attempt at writing in a secondary world of his own, and it feels like he’s been doing it forever. It’s accomplished, bizarre, horrifying and imaginative – I can’t wait for more.
According to some,* heroic deaths are admirable things

* Generally those who don't have to do it.Politicians and writers spring to mind

Jonathan Stroud:Ptolmy's Gate

Offline isos81

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Re: Reviews of City of Stairs by the members here( Spoilers)
« Reply #1 on: November 25, 2019, 07:46:12 AM »
Nice compilation Eclipse, thanks :)
Kallor shrugged. 'I've walked this land when the T'lan Imass were but children. I've commanded armies a hundred thousand strong. I've spread the fire of my wrath across entire continents, and sat alone upon tall thrones. Do you grasp the meaning of this?'

'Yes' said Caladan Brood. 'You never learn'

Offline J.R. Darewood

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Re: Reviews of City of Stairs by the members here( Spoilers)
« Reply #2 on: March 31, 2021, 06:51:21 AM »
Ooohhh I missed this! @eclipse I should have added a review too! (though mine would be far less complimentary than the others)

Offline ScarletBea

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Re: Reviews of City of Stairs by the members here( Spoilers)
« Reply #3 on: March 31, 2021, 07:55:03 AM »
@J.R. Darewood, feel free to add - we need all viewpoints hehe (eclipse, where's mine?)
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Offline eclipse

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Re: Reviews of City of Stairs by the members here( Spoilers)
« Reply #4 on: March 31, 2021, 06:30:44 PM »
Ooohhh I missed this! @eclipse I should have added a review too! (though mine would be far less complimentary than the others)

Better then Sanderson  ;)
According to some,* heroic deaths are admirable things

* Generally those who don't have to do it.Politicians and writers spring to mind

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