Review: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs
Robert Jackson Bennett

Broadway Books
Released September 9, 2014
452 pages
Fantasy / Magic 

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A densely atmospheric and intrigue-filled fantasy novel of living spies, dead gods, buried histories, and a mysterious, ever-changing city — from one of America's most acclaimed young SF writers.
Years ago, the city of Bulikov wielded the powers of the Gods to conquer the world. But after its divine protectors were mysteriously killed, the conqueror has become the conquered; the city's proud history has been erased and censored, progress has left it behind, and it is just another colonial outpost of the world's new geopolitical power. Into this musty, backward city steps Shara Divani. Officially, the quiet mousy woman is just another lowly diplomat sent by Bulikov's oppressors. Unofficially, Shara is one of her country's most accomplished spymasters — dispatched to investigate the brutal murder of a seemingly harmless historian. As Shara pursues the mystery through the ever-shifting physical and political geography of the city, she begins to suspect that the beings who once protected Bulikov may not be as dead as they seem — and that her own abilities might be touched by the divine as well.

While City of Stairs had made a small blip on my radar when it was released last year, I probably wouldn’t have read it any time soon had it not been chosen as a Sword & Laser book club pick. The cover was a little too grey and the title a little too generic to really pull me in. I’m really glad that an outside force convinced me to read it though because City of Stairs was the type of book that blends intricately woven world building with fully formed characters and just enough action to make this a compellingly readable book.

Bulikov is a large city at the center of a fallen world. For centuries several gods had ruled the continent, giving their people immense power and wealth. With that power and wealth, the gods and their people subjugated the rest of the world. Several generations before the start of this story, a man from a subjugated country found a way to kill the gods and went to war with them. Now Bulikov is a city in ruins, the once power capital of an entire continent destroyed when the gods dead. Now the colonial outpost that overthrew the gods controls the mainland as well and has banned everything having to do with the gods.

And that description barely scratches the surface of this intricate world. A historian who studied Bulikov’s history is murdered at the beginning, causing Shara to come to town. She’s a diplomat who is actually probably a spy. She and her compatriot Sigrud are trying to find out who killed the historian, only to get dragged into conspiracy after conspiracy as certain citizens of Bulikov try to return their city to its former glory.

Shara is determined, a little stubborn and often seems made of steel. She’s a spy in all the best ways and quietly observant, so that she often seems a step ahead of everyone else. Sigrud is a scary looking northerner, who is fearless and not to be trifled with. Together they are engaging protagonists that remain smart and determined until the end. The book slowly unravels their own histories while also figuring out how they fit into this ever changing world. Sigrud easily has all the best action sequences whether he’s fighting monsters or rediscovering his true place in the world.

Bennett’s world building is truly complex with hundreds of years of history coloring each page. It’s surprising this book doesn’t even cap 500 pages because there is so much culture, history and conflict filling its pages. Despite that, it never once feels bloated or weighed down by the world building. The pacing stays constant and the writing is so fluid that the book is terribly difficult to put down.

The only real complaint I have about City of Stairs is the naming conventions. Many names are very long and based on more Eastern types of spelling. It took me a while to figure out which characters were which outside of Shara and Sigrud because their all had similar ending names. Some of the city names were equally as long. I mean, don’t even ask me to say Vorrtyashtan out loud. I eventually got to the point that I glossed over a lot of these named places when I’d reach them so that I didn’t stall out trying to pronounce them in my head.

I haven’t read any of Robert Jackson Bennett’s other words, but now I very much want to and knowing that there is a sequel in this world of Bulikov (though not necessarily a continuation of Shara’s story) makes me very intrigued. City of Stairs is a complete story with an ending that is wholly satisfying. I really enjoyed the characters and many of the action sequences had me incapable of putting the book down. I also like that I now can yell, “Spoons!” at random to confuse people and it makes total sense to me.

City of Stairs was a highly enjoyable book and I’d recommend it to anyone that appreciates world building and complicated histories being built into a narrative. This isn’t Game of Thrones, though. You’re going to get a complete story with action that moves the plot along regularly while the world is slowly built around it. It’s an incredibly satisfying feeling and I look forward to spending more time in this world.