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.
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