It’s been some time since I read a book I enjoyed so much that I wished it wouldn’t end. Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs (September 2014, Broadway Books) is one of those books. Gorgeously written, epic in scope, and brimming with big ideas, City of Stairs should be on your must-read list for 2014.
Welcome to the ruined city of Bulikov, center of the Continent and Seat of the World. The Continentals, once favored by the gods, have been cast down, and their holy city occupied, by their former slaves, the Saypuri. A generation earlier, the great Saypuri hero, the Kaj, developed a weapon capable of killing the Divinities, and used it to liberate his people. The Kaj’s slaying of the builder Divinity, Taalhavras, resulted in a cataclysmic moment known as “the Blink,” when the removal of the divine architect’s magics reordered reality, wreaking such havoc that Bulikov is still in ruins decades later. As the novel opens, the Saypuri, now the premier world power, occupy Bulikov, ruling the restless Continentals and denying them the right to speak of their fallen gods.
Whew. You still with me? It’s better the way Bennett tells it, more seamless, more natural, and in a way that’s deliciously agonizing: What happened to the Divinity Kolkan? Is he going to explain it? Spoiler: He does. I believe Bennett has achieved with City of Stairs what might be termed “page turner” status.
The action begins when Shara, a top Saypuri agent, arrives in Bulikov to investigate the murder of the Saypuri historian Efrem Pangyui. Saypur had dispatched Pangyui to investigate the Divinities, to learn why it was they favored the Continentals at the expense of the rest of the world. Of course, having access to the Continental legacy, access the Saypuris deny the Continentals, made Pangyui enemies. Pangyui’s murder isn’t so straightforward, of course; Shara’s investigation points to layers of conspiracy…
The plot of the book, as Byzantine as it is (and I say that as a compliment) takes back seat to Bennett’s world building. Hear me out! If you’re like me, you’re weary of the world building fad, an overused device that should support, rather than supplant, the act of storytelling. City of Stairs is an example of world building done right. (Seriously. Broadway Books, put that on the cover and sell it to all the aspiring writers out there. They need this.) Bennett’s world feels natural and alive. The age of miracles ended when the Kaj killed the Divinities (and his armies rounded up and slaughtered their “children,” fairies, nymphs, and other, more exotic, creatures). Shara and her cohort inhabit a fallen world in which it’s illegal for people to mention the Divinities’ names, but where some followers still adhere to their gods’ laws. Kolkashtanis, followers of the Abrahamic lawgiver and meter-out of punishment, Kolkan, insist upon modesty, and are horrified by women’s seductive “secret femininity.” Most impressive, Bennett achieves this level of detail seamlessly and naturally: He invites the reader into Bulikov.
Of course, even the best books suffer from problems, and City of Stairs is no exception. The Dreyling (read: Viking) Sigrud, the muscle to Shara’s brains, appears to be a fan favorite, but, to this reader, at least, was one dimensional, especially in contrast to Shara’s inner life and the conflicted emotions of her former lover, Vohannes Votrov. Sigrud, capable of any physical feat, has been robbed of meaning and pursues death. Attentive readers will be able to predict Sigrud’s fate soon after Bennett introduces him.
The plot, although wonderfully complex, feels, by the end of the book, to be too finely planned. There are no loose ends; every thread is accounted for. While that degree of closure might be satisfying to some readers, it lends an artificial air to the book’s ending. Certainly, readers will have suspended disbelief early on, when they learn that gods and men once (literally) walked and talked with one another. But it’s the old conundrum of convincing readers that something fantastic is real, only to break the spell by noting something mundane but incorrect, like the top hat Ben Franklin wore. The very comprehensiveness of the story’s resolution strains credulity–but this is a minor quibble, given the book’s strengths.
Bennett, too, engages in some very obvious and, at times, heavy handed commentary. There is something provocative, of course, about deicide. Kolkan, a stand-in for the Abrahamic god, is cast in particularly poor light, as are his adherents (although, to his credit, Bennett makes even Kolkan a more complicated character that readers might expect at first blush). The followers of Olvos, the Divinity who disappeared millennia previously, wear orange robes, eschew wealth, and serve their fellows, an obvious reference to Buddhism, or, at least, its ideals. Ultimately, the relationship of people to their gods is revealed to have existed in a way that points towards Bennett’s message for his readers (a message that this reader found understandable but unrealistic).
Complaints aside–and they are minor ones, I assure you–City of Stairs is a remarkable book. Readers have asked if City of Stairs is “epic fantasy” or “urban fantasy.” The answer, as cute as it might be, is both, and neither. City of Stairs is not readily classifiable; it plays with, and transcends, genre. Fantasy has painted itself into a corner with its retread of the same tired tropes on one hand and its retreat into nihilistic “grimdark” on the other. City of Stairs is the antidote to that conundrum: It is fantasy’s way forward. City of Stairs is highly recommended and not to be missed.