City of Stairs – Robert Jackson Bennett

About the Book

A densely atmospheric and intrigue-filled fantasy novel of living spies, dead gods, buried histories, and a mysterious, ever-changing city-from one of America’s most acclaimed young SF writers.

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 Divani. Officially, the quiet mousy 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.

464 pages (paperback)
Published on September 8, 2014
Published by Broadway Books
Author’s webpage

This book was sent for me to review by the publisher. 

(Full disclosure: Last night I was really sick with some sort of 24 hour flu/barf fest thing. I wanted to write this review and have it up today, so I wrote it while I was throwing up – which was a really dumb idea – and scheduled it to drop in the morning without editing it. BIG MISTAKE. I just edited/rewrote massive portions of it because the last one was an epic fail. So this is attempt two for my City of Stairs review.)

I’ve read all of Robert Jackson Bennett’s books, and I’ve loved every single one of them. In fact, I’m getting to the point where I’m not sure if I can review his books anymore as I seem to feel so strongly about them. What’s the point in reviewing if all I do is rave?

That wouldn’t be a problem if Bennett wasn’t such a damn good writer. It’s all his fault, you see.

City of Stairs is unlike all of his other books. It’s set in a secondary world that has a epic fantasy elements while feeling more urban fantasy. Steeped in a nicely developed, rather complex mythology, with characters that don’t fall into the ‘good guy’ or ‘bad guy’ camp, Bennett has really bent his mind to make something absolutely unique for his readers.

And oh, wow, does it pay off.

Bennett obviously took care with his world building. In fact, the world and everything that fills it is absolutely astounding. The gods and goddesses, the culture that is steeped in mythology and political complexities will instantly grip you. And in case you’re worried, the characters are just as real as the world, and just as complex. Nothing is what it seems to be on the surface, and that fact alone is sure to instantly hook me. Bennett has a knack for tossing his readers down the rabbit hole and letting them unwrap and unveil all the mysteries that he hides in the depths in their own time, on their own terms – and in that way, City of Stairs really shines. You put something into books like this, and due to that, when you’re done reading it, you feel like you’ve accomplished something incredible.

And you have, because wow….

The plot itself starts out simple enough. A woman who works for the government arrives to investigate a murder. It is pretty obvious almost instantly that Shara is more than what she appears to be, but there is so much else that is going on in the background and right in front of readers that you’ll be content to just sit back and enjoy the timely pace in which things unravel. This isn’t just a plot driven book, much like another book I can’t stop raving about (Love Minus Eighty), there is so much going on in the periphery that if the central story doesn’t grip you right away, something else surely will.

One thing that I loved about this book almost as much as the characters and everything else, is how Bennett deals with culture. He’s almost ruthless with it, but he’s also very true to human nature and our own history. It can get rather uncomfortable, reading about a subjugated culture, a culture that is forced to give up so much of its traditions to bend to their foreign rulers. However, it’s reality. It isn’t just secondary world reality, but it is our reality, and Bennett is sure to make readers stop and think about some things as you really get familiar with the cultures he has created, and just how they impact each other – not always in good ways.

Due to that, and due to a lot of other reasons I won’t really touch in this review, City of Stairs packs one hell of a punch. It’s absolutely engrossing, but it’s also thought provoking, humbling, and intensely atmospheric. Bennett has been one of my favorite writers since I read The Troupe, and that favorite-writer status has only been underlined with every subsequent book. However, City of Stairs is a masterwork. It is all the strengths of his last books, and none of the flaws. I would go so far as to argue that City of Stairs is probably Bennett’s best book to date.

The true beauty of it, though, is that City of Stairs shows the potential of the genre when authors decide to color outside of the lines. It doesn’t fit any labels or definitions. It isn’t too much of one thing and not enough of another. It’s just…. what it is, and sometimes that’s the best kind of book to read. There is real stylistic finesse here, and some subtle use of language and plot structure that propels this one into a dimension all its own. For books released so far this year, City of Stairs pushed the bar pretty high.

I almost hate calling this a review, because it really isn’t. I haven’t been specific about anything, and I don’t think I’ve said one less than flowery thing yet. I guess some books are beyond all of that, and City of Stairs is one of them.

5/5 stars

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