Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Publisher: Random House
Series: The Divine Cities Book One
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Robert Jackson Bennett has been publishing speculative fiction for the past couple of years, getting hype in small circles, until City of Stairs was published and has since become one of the most hyped fantasy books in the back half of 2014. For the most part Bennett’s book lives up to the hype and it’s certainly one of the year’s strongest releases.
Taking place in the city of Bulikov the people currently living here were once the rulers of the world, which they accomplished with the help of six divinities. The divinities end up getting killed, and without them the Continental Army falls, and Bulikov is the only city left standing from a once proud empire, which in turn is now just an outpost for the new reigning empire, the Saypur.
After the murder of one of the only professor’s who has access to research the true history of Bulikov and its divinities is murdered, Ashara Thivani is sent to the city as an ambassador to investigate. Ashara, usually shortened to Shara, is the character focal point. As is it’s quickly revealed, she is more than just an ambassador, she is a spy for Saypur and her aunt Vinya whom has considerable political power there. Shara has a lot of conflicts to resolve once she sets foot in Bulikov: the death of the unpopular professor, who was seen as a symbol of oppression by the people of the city has now made it a hot point for unrest; Shara is a descendant of the man who was responsible for killing the divinities, which means keeping her identity secret is paramount to her survival; she has a wealthy ex-lover, Vohannes Votrov, who just happens to know her identity and be an important political person in Bulikov; Shara begins to suspect that the powerful divinities may not all be dead. All of these issues ensure that there is plenty of conflict to keep the reader turning the pages, and that is exactly what this book is.
The other major characters are just as drawn out and interesting as Shara. The Governor of Bulikov, Turyin Mulaghesh is an aging bureaucrat, a fitness fanatic, and a chronic smoker that just wants to retire to a peaceful island. Her apathy and her masculine traits make her an entertaining character, and a source of comic relief when the time is right. Vohannes adds a romantic twist to the story, but really seems to serve as a character that is used to explore sexuality. Bennett handles this really well as a lot of fiction writers tend classify a characters sexuality as either homosexual or heterosexual. With Vohannes a clear cut bisexuality is explored and it makes for a very modern and relevant examination of sexuality in today’s world. I expect most people will love Sigrud, Shara’s “kick your face off” bodyguard that accompanies her everywhere. Whenever there’s an action scene, Sigrud’s arrival is synonymous with gruesome deaths. He’s not one dimensional, especially once readers get to the backstory which is just as gripping as Shara’s. One of his most memorable scenes occurs midway through book that reminds me of a classic Groundskeeper Willie moment from the Simpson’s which I’ve linked a video for below.
City of Stairs is full of exceptional worldbuilding that elaborates on some of the newer ideas readers are finding in Steampunk books. At times it feels like this book was heavily inspired by the New Weird, but at the same time it feels pretty independent of that genre, too. There are, as the title suggests, lots of stairs, but there are also mashed up buildings, firearms that are in an early stage of development, photography, vehicles, and miracles – the primary idea for Bennett’s magic system. Prose is handled well, and at times Bennett likes to deviate from the traditional formats. Readers can find itenerarized lists of character thought processes and magic items along with traditional forms of narration. The clashing of genres, particular noir with fantasy works well. As Shara investigates these murders she uncovers more about her past and about herself.
Where the book struggles is with the depth it explores its themes. Faith, family, class, cultural genocide are all issues explored in this book, but the author seems to struggle to say anything new or emotionally substantial about them. At times it feels like he’s walking on eggshells, and, at times, when he does explore these issues it starts to feel like he’s lecturing the reader.
Originally intended to be a standalone, the book ends with some serious sequel potential. Bennett has confirmed that a sequel is in the works, how many books this will be turned into has not been specified at this time. City of Stairs has hints of greatness scattered throughout, but at the end it falls just shy of it.