Robert Jackson Bennett – City of Stairs

robertjacksonbennett-thecityofstairsYou’ve got to be careful when you’re chasing a murderer through Bulikov, for the world is not as it should be in that city. When the gods were destroyed and all worship of them banned by the Polis, reality folded; now stairs lead to nowhere, alleyways have become portals to the past, and criminals disappear into thin air.

The murder of Dr Efrem Pangyui, the Polis diplomat researching the Continent’s past, has begun something and now whispers of an uprising flutter out from invisible corners.

Only one woman may be willing to pursue the truth – but it is likely to cost her everything.

Robert Jackson Bennett is an author I’ve had my eye on for a while. Several of my favourite book people rave about his work and I’ve enjoyed his non-fiction writing on his blog and other places that I’ve read. With City of Stairs Bennett moved from more horror-infused speculative fiction over to epic fantasy and since that is my first SFF love, I knew I had to read it, no excuses. The premise of the book – what happens to a world where one group of people murders the another group of people’s gods – was fascinating and the promise of a setting other than your usual run-of-the-mill medieval Western Europe made it even better.  

City of Stairs’ setting was amazing. The city of Bulikov has a very Slavic sensibility, though admittedly there are also Central Asian and Indian elements to at least the names in the book. The there/not-there sense of the city is fantastic and visualised most dramatically in the stairs that lead into thin air. Though the books are nothing alike, Bulikov gave me the same feeling as Miéville’s Besźel and Ul Quam from The City and the City. Perhaps this reminiscence is strengthened by the fact that there is a mystery at the heart of the narrative and the plot is set in motion by a murder.

Because it is the murder of Dr Efrem Pangyui that brings Shara Thivani to Bulikov to investigate and catch the culprit. Shara was a fabulous character. She’s a bit older, mid-thirties, book-smart, a bit of a history geek, and the black sheep of a very illustrious family in Saypur. I loved Shara’s independence and her guts. She’s very cerebral, yet at the same time impulsive, following both her conscience and her heart, unafraid to take risks and deal with the consequences later. She is aided by Sigurd, a Northern tribesman with a strange, tragic and mysterious past and future. While I loved this taciturn warrior to pieces, he also felt somewhat too elemental in what is a very sophisticated environment.

During the course of their investigation Shara and Sigurd have to deal with a plethora of characters, ranging from venal bureaucrats to not-so-secret revolutionaries, from the city’s richest citizens to the humblest. My favourite character Shara encounters and has to work with quite extensively is the Polis Governor Turyin Mulaghesh. She’s a veteran, having served her time on the battlefield putting down several rebellions and is now the by-the-book Saypur governor of Bulikov. She’s tough as nails, seemingly only interested in landing herself a cushy job in a warm place to serve out her years in the service. But she warms to Shara and the more we see of her, the more interesting she becomes. Another fascinating character was Shara’s Aunt Vinya, who is not just her closest living relative, but also her boss. Vinya is another person who definitely is more than she seems at first blush. I liked the interactions between her and Shara, which always play out on at least three different levels.

While Shara lays bare the secrets of Bulikov in her quest to ferret out Dr Pangyui’s murderer, she also reveals much of the history of Bulikov, the Continent and Saypur. I found this fascinating as the conflict between Bulikov and Saypur means that in essence the conqueror is conquered and the colonised become the colonisers. The way the Saypurians behave after they turn the tables on their enslavers is interesting and I found it hard to figure out if they were getting their own back under the guise of trying to help the Continentals get their life back in order or whether they were genuinely helping. Bennett also drops in some complicating theological and philosophical quandaries in the form of the Continent’s murdered gods. How does the loss of a god affect the world and its population? What does it do to a community if any mention or allusion to their dead gods is eradicated under threat of severe punishment?  And for the Saypurians, what does it say about them that they didn’t have a god who chose them? At least, that is what they ask themselves and this question leads to an eternal sense of inferiority and injustice, even when they’ve gained the upper hand and the power to rule.

Bennett only partly suggests answers for the above questions and I found myself pondering the possible answers trying to figure out what I thought the right ones were. City of Stairs was everything I hoped it would be; it was fresh, fascinating, very well-written, and thought-provoking. I’m glad to know we’ll see more of this world in a sequel called City of Blades according to Bennett’s website. City of Stairs is one of my favourite books of 2014 and I’ll definitely be back for more Robert Jackson Bennett in the future.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


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