Serena’s Review: “City of Stairs”

City of Stairs Review: “City of Stairs” by Robert Jackson Bennett

Publishing Info: Broadway Books, September 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Years ago, the city of Bulikov wielded the powers of the Gods to conquer the world. But after its divine protectors were mysteriously killed, the conqueror has become the conquered; the city’s proud history has been erased and censored, progress has left it behind, and it is just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power. Into this musty, backward city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the quiet woman is just another lowly diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, Shara is one of her country’s most accomplished spymasters — dispatched to investigate the brutal murder of a seemingly harmless historian. As Shara pursues the mystery through the ever-shifting physical and political geography of the city, she begins to suspect that the beings who once protected Bulikov may not be as dead as they seem — and that her own abilities might be touched by the divine as well.

Review: This book is like a magical combination of everything I love to read.

Ingredients for Serena’s favorite reading experience:

  • a unique, fantasy setting
  • a compelling main character with a diverse and interesting set of companions
  • a mystery that is both challenging but has also been well laid out with clues
  • a good helping of action scenes
  • a dash of philosophy
  • a sprinkle of witty dialogue

Mix well and consume!

Bennett’s “City of Stairs” was a perfect concoction.

Honestly, this book was so good, I don’t even know where to start. Not only that, but the world that Bennett has created, its history, its peoples, its culture, is so elaborate and detailed that almost anything I say will be wildly, misleadingly, simplified. I guess I’ll try to just touch on a few of my favorite aspects.

The characters. I could probably list every single character here and just call it good. Shara was a great leading character. She’s reminiscent of a noir detective, combined with Hermione Granger, with the chops of James Bond. Her “secretary,” Sigrud is essentially a giant Viking with a dark past who’s taking names. Turyin Mulaghesh: grizzled war veteran. She just wants to retire on an island, but her inherent badassery is always going to get in the way. Vohannes, a Continental native whose political savvy and charm make him an indisposable ally or a disastrous foe. Aunt Vinya, the “M” of the Saypurian spy network. I could go on. Essentially, this cast is diverse, complex, and perfectly balanced. There wasn’t an unrealized character or point of view to be found.

But the real strength of this story is the intricate analysis of its world. There are two aspects that I most want to focus on: colonialism and religion. The relationship between the Continent and Saypur is laid out in a way that is so perfectly imperfect. The Continent, once the powerhouse of the world, invaded Saypur and enslaved its people for centuries. After their Gods fell at the hands of a Saypurian general, the Continent sunk into disrepair. Saypur has risen as the new center of culture and economics. Saypur has occupied the Continent and outlawed the Continent’s own history. What makes this balance so striking is the honest portrayal of the failings of countries. The line between the oppressor and the oppressed is constantly tested.

The real success here is the sadness this book evokes. The Continentals did terrible things. But the remnants of their history are laid slowly before you, the ruin of what once were glorious feats of architecture, and you can’t help but feel a sense of loss. This ability to balance the wonder, beauty, and terrible, sudden quenching of culture and people with the true horror that was the Continentals’ reign makes this book special.

The commentary on religion is even stronger. In a world where once Gods walked the earth and directly touched the lives of people, religion and faith have a different meaning. The sense of entitlement that can come with a belief system would inevitably become even more prevalent. The Continentals can see and interact with their Gods. Saypur is literally Godless. How can the Continentals not be blessed and meant to be the center of the world?

Beyond this, each God has his or her own set of beliefs, ways of interacting with their followers, and chosen method of influencing the world. Kolkan reflects a rule-based religion. Judgement and punishment is at its core. Olvos is the Goddess of light. Hers is a faith based in thinking for oneself and living a life of service. Jukov is a God of mischief. He’ll as likely bless you as turn you into a flock of birds. Life should be lived to its fullest and the chaos of the world embraced. Each of these Gods and their specific faith systems carry traces of the familiar. Buried within it all is a deeper discussion of power and where it lies. Does faith and religion carry meaning because of the power of its God or the power of its followers?

It’s hard to discuss much of this book without spoiling the best parts. For a story that takes place in a world where knowledge of its past is forbidden, the slow reveal of history, its lies and truths, is a huge factor in the reader’s enjoyment. I won’t ruin it for you!

Let it just be said, beyond having some really interesting things to say, there are also some truly fun adventures. Shara and Sigrud battle a sea monster. Sigrud battles ninjas. There are portals, there are magic carpets, there are mysterious cults and creepy beasts. Like I said at the beginning, everything I could possibly want!

Rating 10: Practically perfect in every way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“City of Stairs” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Sword and Laser Fantasy List” and “Diversity in Fantasy and Science Fiction.”

Find “City of Stairs” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Kate’s Review: “DC Comics: Bombshells (Vol.1): Enlisted”

25982692Book: “DC Comics: Bombshells (Vol.1): Enlisted” by Marguerite Bennett, Marguerite Sauvage (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, March 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The Library!

Book Description from GoodreadsIn these stories from issues #1-6 of the hit series, learn the story behind this alternate reality where the Second World War is fought by superpowered women on the front lines and behind the scenes! It all begins with the stories of Batwoman, Wonder Woman and Supergirl.

Review: Last year our friend Anita and I went to the local Wizard World Comic Con Convention. When we were walking around the merchandise area, we saw these really cute posters of DC superheroines drawn like retro WWII-era Pin Ups. I had no clue what the story was with them, but had to get the Black Canary one for my house.

black canary
How could I not hang this up in the kitchen?

So when I got to work one day, I went to check out the new materials wall. And what did I see? “DC Comics: Bombshells (Vol.1): Enlisted”. Needless to say I ran over to the book and grabbed it for myself.

The Goodreads summary doesn’t really do this justice, so here is mine. Set in an alternate universe, “Bombshells” is a WWII era historical fiction arc starring a whole lot of DC’s superheroines and supervillainesses. Various governments and groups start recruiting these women so they can fight for their countries, or the group’s motivations. You have Batwoman, an All American Girl’s Baseball League player who is recruited to be an American Spy. You have Wonder Woman, a Amazonian princess who meets WWII flier Steve Trevor when he crashes near her home, and she and her bestie Mera decide to bring him home, but get the attention of American forces. Supergirl and Stargirl are living in Soviet Russia, who are discovered to have serious powers that can be used as Soviet Propaganda. Zatanna is being pressured into working with the Joker’s Daughter in Berlin, standing aside helplessly as Joker’s Daughter gives the Nazis magical, zombie making powers. And then there’s Harley Quinn, who has forsaken her medical prowess in London and flies into France in search of her boyfriend, only to find Pamela Isley, a possible French Resistance Fighter.

Does this sound amazing? GOOD, BECAUSE IT IS!

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(source)

There are many things to like about this comic. First and foremost, the concept is super creative. The idea kind of sounds like an alternate universe fan fiction idea, but Marguerite Bennett’s writing makes it work so well. She takes a lot of things from WWII history, like the All American Girl’s Professional Baseball League, or the Soviet Night Witches, and gives them a very cool platform to bring them to the forefront while producing some really intriguing storylines. While I loved all of them, I think that the one of my favorites was definitely that of Supergirl and Stargirl, as the story not only talked about the Night Witches, it also showed the brutal regime that the Soviets had in spite of the fact they were our allies. The part that punched me in the gut the hardest was when Supergirl and Stargirl realize that they are supposed to be attacking a camp that, while disguised as a Nazi Camp, is actually a Soviet Prison camp, with political prisoners of all ages being held there. It was super ballsy to address that and to give these girls a serious moral dilemma. And I also liked the Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy storyline, because if it does go the way of the French Resistance, that would be super cool. The Resistance is getting more play in literature lately, between “Code Name Verity” and “All the Light We Cannot See”, so if it gets a fun story in this comic I will be very happy. The banter is also quite zippy and fun to read, and the dialogue feels natural and not stilted. I found it very feminist and woman centric without being heavy handed or on the nose.

Another aspect I liked is that through this story, DC is giving a lot of great fun and great opportunities to their lady characters. While I love DC guys a whole lot too, the fact that there was no sign of Batman, or Superman, or any of the other heavy hitters, was very refreshing. You see a couple guys, namely Lex Luthor and John Constantine. But Luthor is a fellow spy who is teamed up with Batwoman and Catwoman, and Constantine is more of a sidekick to Zatanna.

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Also, he’s been turned into a bunny (source).

Like I said, I like the men of DC. But honestly, if they start to come in and play a bigger part I will feel a little miffed. This is the time and the series to let the ladies shine.

And the story is just fun. I was screeching in glee as I read this volume, and actually had to put it down and run off to tell my husband about a certain cameo that appears late in the game. No spoiling it. But it was a hoot to see this character, even if it was for just a moment.

“Bombshells” is a fabulous series and I need Volume 2 yesterday. It isn’t coming out until September, so I am just going to have to wait, I guess. Probably not at all patiently.

Rating 10: This comic is everything. I had so much fun while reading it and I cannot wait for the next one. Fans of comics, WWII fiction, and kick ass ladies need to pick this one up!

Reader’s Advisory:

“DC Comics: Bombshells (Vol.1): Enlisted” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Comics by Women”, and “Amazons, Female Warriors, and Wonder Women”.

Find “DC Comics: Bombshells (Vol.1): Enlisted” at your library using Worldcat!