Like a Singularly Exquisite Cup of Tea – A Review of City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

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When it comes to fantasy and science fiction, I’ve gotten used to reading series—trilogy-length, at least, but I’m always willing to settle in for the long-haul of a much lengthier series, as long as the series proves itself worthy of long waits and occasional fevered rereads to get back up to speed on the plot. In fact, it’s gotten so that when I come across a one-shot in the course of my reading, I am partially skeptical, but also utterly delighted. There’s something wonderful about being able to read an entire story from beginning to end in the span of one book, without having to worry about waiting for the sequel, which, under the best circumstances, could be a year away.

So one-shot fantasy and sci-fi books are something of a treasured rarity, even more so if they’re well-written. Fortunately, this year has been very good for me (not least because Hope reads so much faster than I do and can generally throw things my way on a regular basis): this year saw me read Katherine Addison’s exquisite novel The Goblin Emperor, and Andy Weir’s The Martian, the former for fantasy, and the latter for sci-fi.

But just before the year went out, fate and friendship saw it fit to throw me another bone, and once again, thanks to Hope, I decided to give Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs a shot.

City of Stairs begins in, well, a city. Long ago, the city of Bulikov was the capital and sacred city of the Continent, a nation of conquerors supported by gods they called the Divinities. With their gods behind them, nothing could stop the Continentals from conquering and enslaving the rest of the world, including the people of Saypur. But since then, times have changed, and the roles have been reversed: the Saypuri are now in control of the Continent, and the city of Bulikov is half-destroyed, its population ravaged by disease and poverty—a reflection of the state of the rest of the country. Under Saypuri control, the Continentals no longer have access to their history and their religion—least of all to the gods they used to worship, for the Saypuri hero called the Kaj killed them long ago.

But all is not as well as the Saypuri might like—something that becomes obvious when Dr. Efrem Pangyui, a notable Saypuri scholar, is murdered in Bulikov. Sensing that the discontent in the city is about to reach a head, diplomat Shara Thivani arrives in the city with her secretary, Sigrud, to find out just why Pangyui was murdered. But things go much deeper than that, and the ancient city hides far more secrets than Shara knew—or might have wanted to know.

I like worlds that feel big enough and solid enough to live in for a while, but it can be hard to do that in the space of one book. Some writers, though, are good enough that they can give a world a feeling of depth and breadth within the space of one book: writers like Katherine Addison, who managed to create an entire world deep enough and broad enough to live in for The Goblin Emperor, while still managing to fit it all in one book.

Bennett manages to accomplish the same thing in City of Stairs, though in a different way than Addison. While Addison plays with language to create the sense of a wider world beyond the scope of what is presented in The Goblin Emperor, Bennett makes use of history in order to do the same thing. City of Stairs is preoccupied with history: the way it is made and who makes it; who has access to it, and how much of it is made available to the public; its censorship and what is considered “true” or “false”; and finally, what happens when it must be rewritten. Getting the answers to these questions builds the world for the reader, as they, through the characters, get a better grasp of what happened to Bulikov—and find out what happened to Dr. Pangyui.

In many ways, those questions also form the thematic heart of the novel. Questions about history and heritage are always relevant, whether at the level of the individual or the nation as a whole, and the novel deals with these questions at all levels quite admirably. There are also questions about the gods, and the nature of divinity, and of theology as a whole. What is a god, anyway? Where do they come from? What gives them power over mortals? More importantly: do the gods make us, or do we make them? Interesting questions, certainly, and they are ones that Bennett tackles throughout the course of the novel—in fact, they are the foundation upon which the entire novel is built.

Of course, none of this would matter so much if the characters weren’t interesting, and fortunately, the characters are exceedingly fun and interesting to read about. Shara is a standout, in my opinion: I love it when writers create female characters who are amazingly competent at their job, but who are still capable of making mistakes—and, more importantly, capable of learning from those mistakes. Shara is precisely that: when she’s first introduced she cuts a rather intimidating figure, but it quickly becomes clear that that’s not all there is to her—particularly when the reader begins to gain an understanding of her past and her motives, as well as her relationship with the other characters: in particular, with Sigrud.

Sigrud comes off, initially, as the typical strong, stoic bodyguard-type, especially in the first few chapters because Shara deliberately makes him maintain that role. However, the reader quickly begins to realise that, as with Shara, there is far more to Sigrud than the reader might have initially thought. For some odd reason, when I started to learn about his past the first thing that popped to mind was the Skye Boat Song—the original, mind, not the variation used as the opening theme for the show Outlander. But that was only an initial impression, and it quickly changed the more I learned about his history.

Echoing the overarching themes of the novel, understanding Shara and Sigrud means understanding their pasts. Sigrud’s past is interesting, to be sure, but I found myself more intrigued by Shara’s—not least because it pretty much lies at the heart of some of the most stunning revelations in the entire novel. For Shara is not simply Shara Thivani, but Shara Komayd, descendant of the legendary Kaj who killed the Divinities of the Continent and cleared the way for the eventual Saypuri triumph over their former masters. This means that her presence in Bulikov investigating Pangyui’s murder is not as simple as it seems on the surface, especially when she begins to uncover things that she did not know before—both about the political situation in Saypur, about what is and is not considered history, and about herself.

But what I loved most about these two characters is their relationship. I love reading about a good, solid, platonic relationship, and that’s precisely what Shara and Sigrud have. Theirs is a friendship forged in some very tough and difficult situations, and the level of trust they share with each other is incredible. And truth be told, it was more satisfying to read about their relationship that it was to read about Shara’s entanglements with Vohannes Votrov, interesting though that might have been. Romance is well and good, but friendships are, in my opinion, even better.

As for the plot, it’s a remarkably fun one that is well-nestled in the setting and has some surprising twists and turns along the way. Even better, it feels as if it’s the characters steering the plot along, instead of the other way around, which is fun because it allows the characters room to not only be heroic, but to also make mistakes—sometimes even unto the point of disaster.

What I am rather puzzled about, though, are the comparisons made between this novel and Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire. They feel like two distinct beasts, similar only in that they are both incredible novels that occupy the same genre; their world building is equally solid and organic; and they share some similar themes about history and religion. But The Mirror Empire reads as a much bloodier, much angrier book, while City of Stairs reads as something a bit quieter. Perhaps others are simply seeing something I’m not.

Overall, City of Stairs is a very satisfying kind of book: a well-built world with well-written characters, and a plot that springs organically from its setting and characters, while still allowing for some rather unexpected revelations towards the end. Even better, it is on par with some of the finest epic fantasy novels currently available, while still being contained in a single volume. It takes a mighty talented storyteller to pack that much value in one package, and Bennett, through this novel, proves that he is most certainly that.

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