City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs

The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions—until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself—first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it—stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.

Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country’s most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem—and that Bulikov’s cruel reign may not yet be over.

I got a recommendation for this book from my buddy and book reviewer extraordinaire: Sunil Patel. And, by the way, it should be noted that Sunil just joined the staff of LIghtspeed Magazine as a regular book review columnist.  When Sunil recommends a book, I tend to listen.

Sunil suggested City of Stairs because he knows everyone in our writing group (including me) is a big fan of N.K. Jemisin, and especially her Inheritance Trilogy. There are a lot of comparisons I could make between City of Stairs and Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but that comparison won’t mean much if you haven’t read either book. Fallen, vengeful gods, oppressive religious theocracies, the haves vs. the have nots, murder mysteries, secret pasts and shocking revelations about the true identities of the main characters, etc.

But while Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has a strong pre-industrial fantasy vibe, City of Stairs is more post-industrial. It steps right up to the border of steampunk, but it doesn’t quite cross it. It’s steampunk’s cozy cousin, and for that reason it also reminds me a lot of the Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist, which is unapologetically steampunk. Glass Books has similarities in core characters, contraptions, and ideas of alchemy and magic that are present in City of Stairs. Both novels are also romping adventure mysteries that can quickly take a dark turn.

The main character of City of Stairs is Shara. She’s a brilliant female covert operative who is a bit cold and calculating. For that reason I had a little trouble connecting to her. Shara’s sidekick, Sigrud, is the reason I really fell in love with the book and I will look forward to reading more in this series just to see him again. Sigrud is a  giant of a man who comes from Northern countries ruled by pirate governments who took over after after the royal family was killed in a political coup. Sigrud acts as Shara’s bodyguard and executioner of all her dirty work. He never met a man he couldn’t kill. Of course, that brutal exterior is hiding a sensitive secret and a strict sense of honor and loyalty. Another character that I really love is the rough-and-tumble, rootin-tootin Saypuri woman, General Mulaghesh, who is charged with governing Bulikov.

City of Stairs makes a strong showing in the category of powerful female characters and racial, religious, and sexual diversity. In that way, it is a completely modern and current novel, thematically speaking.

The book is set in an “other” world. It is not earth, but parallels to earthy nations are obvious and clear. Bulikov and the other cities composing the “Continent” have russian sounding names, but I couldn’t help drawing comparisons between Bulikov and some Islamic nations. Shara’s home country of Saypur is it’s own nation across the ocean from the Continent, but many of the names of Saypur’s people have a South Asian/Indian ring to them. Sigrud comes from an land that, to me, is clearly Scandinavia.

Despite some similarities with the “real world” Bennett establishes a clearly defined fantasy land that really doesn’t exist anywhere else. For those who don’t enjoy extensive world building, there may be moments (particularly in the beginning) where the pacing will feel slow.  My only other complaint about pacing comes near the end of the book where a big reveal is made into a long conversation between Shara and another character who had been a mystery through most of the book. It felt like a bit of a long “tell” scene after so much “show”. But the telling was so interesting that I really didn’t mind. One other small critique is that I thought some of the characters (and even my beloved Sigrud) were a tiny bit cliched. But they were comfortable cliches and ones that I love and often go looking for in books, so it wasn’t necessarily a negative thing anyway.

I haven’t read Robert Jackson Bennett before, but I absolutely will read more after reading City of Stairs. Also, he seems to be a genuinely Nice Guy. He’s active on Twitter and was responsive to my tweets about his book, so he has certainly won me over, both  with his words and with his charming sense of humor.

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