Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Genre: urban fantasy
Length: 464 pages
Publisher: Broadway Books (September 2014)
MY RATING: 4.5 stars
City of Stairs is a novel that defies categorization. It’s part spy thriller, part urban fantasy, part romance, part . . . well there’s quite a bit of discussion of politics, foreign policy, imperialism, racism, xenophobia, nationalism, theology, history, propaganda, and . . . tea.
The star of the show is the city of Bulikov, situated in the center of the Continent, where some generations before the story starts six gods came together to form a civilized peace between them. And about a hundred years previous to the story, the last Kaj of Saypur killed the Continent’s gods, leaving their capital not so much in ruins as not quite able to reconcile itself with reality. The magic that exists in this world is left over from the age of the Divinities. Only the people of the Continent aren’t allowed to discuss their own history and exist under the thumb of the Saypuri.
What gets the ball rolling is the death of a university professor sent from faraway Saypur to study the Continent’s forbidden histories. His death, presumably at the hands of Bulikovian nationalists, is the backdrop to the whole plot and brings the protagonist, his former protege Shara, to investigate. Shara has spent much of her life studying the history and lost powers of the Divinities, and brings her own baggage and strengths with her. She is an uncommon protagonist, approaching middle age, a historian of the Continent as well as a spy for her native country (one of her inherent contradictions), physically not that strong, a frequent drinker of tea, and the owner of a pair of thick eyeglasses. She is aided in her mission by her “secretary” Sigrud, a man of great physical size and superb fighting know-how who has his own secrets.
The supporting characters are all fleshed out sufficiently to hint at bigger processes at work but without distracting from the plot. There is a good balance of mystery and action. The Continent and Saypur are intertwined, and Bennett does a good job of revealing the proper details just when it is proper to do so, using the proper character’s point of view. Bulikov itself is a key character with its own intriguing past, like any of the human characters, a product of its history.
I cannot really discuss the plot further without revealing key parts of the plot and the main character arcs. There are a number of big reveals along the way, and it is best to discover those for yourself.
Given the nature of the novel–an entirely original world, with its own history and cultures–I was pleased at how Bennett revealed important information, except in a couple of places, while avoiding the feeling that characters are hearing what they already knowcommon knowledge already–what is commonly called ‘infodumping.’ The narration is distant enough in most places that Shara does not reveal even her own history or knowledge until it’s relevant.
The only problems that I really had with the novel were related to some editorial issues. I read the e-book v.3.1 but there were some misspellings that the editors should have caught by this point. I do not hold the author responsible for these.
In sum, City of Stairs is a complex, thoughtful, lively story full of interesting characters and a fascinating, original backstory. It raises important questions about the nature of history and forgetting, modernity and tradition. Though this book ends with nearly all plotlines fulfilled, I hope to see more stories from this world, maybe with some of the other characters or locales taking pride of place.