Review: City of Stairs

City of Stairs is one fine book and Robert Jackson Bennett is one fine author. But I suspect I would want to argue a lot with him if I met him in the flesh. Okay, so maybe I would be mature and discuss instead of arguing.

It is categorized as epic fantasy, but it reads to me more like a cross between steampunk and fantasy. There are cars and telegraphs, spies and political intrigue, gods and miracles. But more than all of these elements, it is a reflection on cultural exchanges, the nature of truth and reality, the place of religion in human society, the nature of morality... you get the idea. And here I would agree with some of Bennett's ideas and argue with quite a few others.

The city of Bulikov is a shattered shell of what it once was, abandoned staircases leading to nowhere now its claim to fame. In this City of Stairs, once the seat of the gods, resentment runs deep against the Saypuris, the former subjects who three generations ago turned on their oppressors, slaughtered their gods, and became the conquerors. Already we get a hint of the delightful complexity of this book. Neither culture, the Continental or the Saypuri, is presented as the preferred one. Both have been oppressors, both have been oppressed. A murder has now been committed and Saypur's leading spy is sent to investigate. No one realizes that this unassuming woman is the great-granddaughter of the man who killed the gods, nor that she is the former lover of one of Bulikov's leading citizens. She immediately starts acting in unconventional ways, arriving with a huge barbarian as a secretary, taking charge of the embassy, and being uncharacteristically sympathetic to the sensibilities of the Continentals. Her investigation of the murder soon brings her to realize that it is not so certain that the gods are dead. Before it's over, she will be questioning almost everything she thought she knew.

Bennett's story reels out like a taut fishing line. If I've given you the impression that it is slow and introspective, the fault is with me. This is an action thriller and a detective story in addition to an examination of metaphysical questions. In brief, there is something for almost everyone here.

I can't say I agree with many of the conclusions Bennett seems to come to and, being me, I was not entirely happy with the overly abundant coarse language, but I can't help but admire the skill with which he combined so many disparate elements and made them work. Extra points for having a female protagonist who never engages in any martial arts but who manages to take control of a very volatile and dangerous situation. Without breaking her glasses.

Disclaimer: "I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."

Author's website