City of Stairs
Robert Jackson Bennett
Release Date: September 9, 2014
I love surprises, even when they make me look somewhat inept. So I didn’t mind feeling somewhat abashed after doing some background research for this review of City of Stairs, and discovering that Robert Jackson Bennett also wrote the highly acclaimed and gripping horror novel American Elsewhere. I never would have put the two books together had I not visited the author’s website, but after thinking about it, I can see similarities in how thoroughly Mr. Bennett builds his worlds, and how cleverly he allows us to understand his characters. However, American Elsewhere is set in, well, America, of the here and now, whereas City of Stairs is set in a familiar yet far, far distant world.
The world of City of Stairs seems both archaic and fantastical, sort of like steampunk without the gears and dirigibles. Much of the action takes place in the city of Bulikov (City of Walls, Most Holy Mount, Seat of the World, City of Stairs), where once the six Divinities – deities – presided over the Continent, each one laying claim to their own particular reality, performing many miraculous acts while magical artifacts and creatures dropped from their fingers like stars as the Continent itself flourished like a favored, spoiled child. But then the people of neighboring Saypur, who had been conquered and enslaved by the Continentals, rose up against their oppressors. Behind the Kaj – the cunning and ruthless leader of the Saypur – the Divinities were driven out of Bulikov; either murdered or broken and fled. Not only did the Continent’s society quickly disintegrate, but their land came apart, as well: when the gods disappeared, so did everything they had wrought, including the very walls of the majestic city they had built.
The Saypuri people began to grow and prosper again, becoming a major political and economic power under their own initiative. Although they did not enslave their former masters, they did impose a type of martial law bolstered by “World Regulations” and business practices that ensured the Continentals would remain downtrodden in their once glorious city that now was simply grimy and incomplete. All mention – indeed, all public acknowledgement – of the former Divinities, even peripherally, is expressly forbidden.
Into the story steps a seemingly minor Saypuri official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, dispatched to Bulikov under diplomatic protocols. But Ashara Thivani is much more than what her official title, or slight stature, might suggest. She is actually one of the Saypuri government’s most accomplished spies, and an authority on Divine artifacts and history. Sent to investigate the murder of a visiting Saypuri historian officially sanctioned to study the Divinities, it does not take long before Shara and her formidable bodyguard, Sigurd, are plunged deep into an ever escalating web of deceit and espionage.
City of Stairs succeeds on so many different levels, it’s hard to know where to start. The world has depth, and a definite “look”. The people, the architecture, the anomalies – they all are given just the right amount of detail so as to pique the mind’s eye, blending both Charles Dickens and China Miéville. His characters are memorable, from the cigarillo smoking, growling military governor who is tough as nails but wants nothing more than to be stationed somewhere with South Sea beaches, to the scion of a wealthy Continental family who harbors secrets dating back before he and Shara were students together at Fadhuri Academy, to Shara herself, who is short, dark, wears glasses and has secrets of her own, as well as ambitions that seem to be pipe dreams that she nevertheless is unwilling to give up.
And then there’s Sigrud, Shara’s “bodyguard”. Neither Continental nor Saypuri, he’s a “mountain savage”, a Dreyling, a North-man: “… well over six and a half feet tall, incredibly broad in the shoulders and back, but there is not an ounce of fat on him: his face has a lean, starved look… the man’s skin is pale with many pink scars, his beard and hair are blond-white, and his eyes – or rather eye, for one eye is but a dark, hooded cavity – are so pale it is a whitish gray.” Sigrud is an amazing character, both for what he is immediately upon our meeting him, and as his story continues to unfold throughout the text.
In fact, perhaps the most remarkable aspect that author Bennett brings to his story is the ability to peel back the layers of the landscape, the history, the mythology and his characters to spin a tale that is complex, yet richly compelling and eminently recognizable. The lore of the land is thick, the impact of the Divinities is far reaching, both in the actions taken and in the minds and hearts of the people of the Continent. Then he mixes in more layers, more mythos, and buried personal dramas to draw us in deeper – and we are very willing to go with him.
And, it’s beautifully written. Even in the midst of action, there is lovely, introspective, irresistible prose.
Once, when she was very young, Aunt Vinya took her to the National Library in Ghaladesh. Shara was already an avid reader by then, but she had never realized until that moment what books meant, the possibility they presented: you could protect them forever, store them up like engineers store water, endless resources of time and knowledge snared in ink, tied down to paper, layered on shelves…. Moments made physical, untouchable, perfect, like preserving a dead hornet in crystal, one drop of venom forever hanging from its stinger.
All that and I haven’t even mentioned monsters, betrayal, murder, cults and oh yes… flying airships.
Incredibly good stuff, indeed. One of the best I’ve read this year, even last year. Although City of Stairs is a standalone novel, I’m rooting for more stories coming out of Bulikov. I may not want to live there, but I’d sure like to visit it again. And again. And maybe even again.