City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Broadway Books
Release date: September 9 2014
Source: Finished paperback courtesy of Blogging for Books
The nitty-gritty: This book has it all: strong but flawed characters, murder, danger, fighting, humor, and a world that will knock your socks off.
Spiral staircases rise up to halt completely in midair, some only ten feet off the ground, some twenty or thirty. There is something faintly osseous about them, resembling the rippled horns of some massive, exotic ruminant. Birds and cats have nested in the top steps of some. In one ridiculous instance, a huge basalt staircase slashes down through an entire hill, sinking a sheer forty feet into the earth in a veritable chasm that has apparently managed to undermine several small houses, whose remains totter unnervingly on the lip of the gap.
After seeing so many gushing reviews of City of Stairs, I was anxious to start reading it myself. And I was not disappointed. Reading Bennett’s multilayered fantasy was like opening presents on Christmas morning as a kid: each surprise was more wonderous than the next. This novel is one you will savor; it’s not what I would call a quick read, although it does have its page-turning moments. Bennett develops his amazing world with care, dropping detail after detail into our laps without resorting to info-dump. (Although some readers may disagree with me on this. There are a few places in the story where the author uses devices such as journals to convey information.) The world-building blossoms slowly, and by the end of the book I was frankly in awe of Bennett’s imagination.
But it doesn’t stop there. Everything about City of Stairs is beautifully done. The characters in particular jumped off the page, and it was hard picking a favorite. Bennett has a talent for conveying intimate moments between his characters without over-explaining things. His humor is subtle, and each character in the story made me laugh out loud at one time or another. This is one book that I might actually read again, not only to savor the writing, but to catch the things I inevitably missed.
The story is deliciously complex. The city of Bulikov lies in ruins after a bitter war where a people called the Saypur took vengeance and killed the six gods that the people of Bulikov worshipped, at the same time destroying the city and many of those who lived there. When the gods died, the city was destroyed along with them during a phenomenon called The Blink. Now the Saypuri rule, and any form of worship or performing miracles is forbidden.
Shara is a Saypuri diplomat—and a spy in disguise—who is sent to Bulikov to investigate the murder of a Saypuri scholar named Efrem Pangyui. But as she begins to slowly uncover the truth, she also makes some startling discoveries about the dead gods, the city of Bulikov, and even her own shadowy origins. There are many secrets in this strange city, and Shara is determined to find them all, even if it means risking her own life.
One of my favorite characters was Sigrud, who seems to be a favorite of many readers. Sigrud starts out as a silent, hulking brute with murderous tendencies (he’s one of the most awesome killing machines I’ve ever run across!). But as the story goes on, Sigrud’s back-story paints him in a different light, and I grew to love him even more. He’s fiercely loyal to Shara, who helped him out of a tricky situation, and together they make a fantastic team—she’s the brains and he’s the brawn.
Mulaghesh was also a surprising character, a woman who comes across as ballsy and harsh, but ends up being somewhat of a softie, after Bennett peals back some of her prickly layers. And I loved Shara as well, a petite but fierce woman who has a few tricks up her sleeves and isn’t afraid to use them. But what really made the characters shine for me were their interactions with each other. What appears to be one sort of relationship can quickly turn into something entirely different, and I loved how the author kept me guessing.
Which brings us to the world-building. What can I say about the world-building that hasn’t already been said? Here are some things you should watch out for when you read City of Stairs—because I know you’re going to run right out and find yourself a copy, right? The Unmentionable Warehouse; miracles; the Bell Tower; Urav (!!!); Divine objects; old Bulikov; and many more. This story is chock-full of cool ideas that all worked seamlessly together, and that isn’t an easy thing to accomplish. I don’t want to give too much away, because half the fun is discovering each new element for yourself. But I did love that when the gods were alive, they granted their followers “miracles,” small acts of magic that made life simpler for people. For example, Shara finds some notes that Efrem made about old objects with miraculous properties, supposedly destroyed during the Blink:
Small iron key: Name is unknown, but when used on any door the door sometimes opens onto an unidentified tropical forest. Pattern has yet to be determined. Still miraculous.
City of Stairs has plenty of emotional moments as well, since the characters seem to be in danger from the beginning. It’s during these most desperate times that they choose to reveal how they feel about each other, or feel compelled to tell their most private secrets. If it weren’t for these human connections, this book would not have worked nearly as well as it did.
In the end, most everything is resolved, and yet…Bennett leaves us with a glimmer of things to come. Clearly Shara and Sigrud and Mulaghesh have more adventures in store. I have heard he’s writing a sequel, so let’s hope that’s true! Horror story, murder mystery, fantasy tale—City of Stairs is all this and more. Highly recommended!
Big thanks to Blogging for Books for supplying a review copy. All opinions are strictly my own.
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