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City of Stairs (The Divine Cities) Paperback – September 9, 2014
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"A memorably surreal urbanscape...readers seeking a truly refreshing fantasy milieu should travel to Bulikov, and welcome its conquest.”
--New York Times Book Review
"A delightful urban fantasy that travels through a city full of Escher-like staircases and alternate realities...A diverse and entertaining cast of old gods fleshes out the ruins of this mysterious city, and Shara’s hit-man secretary delivers nonstop action."
"Entertaining yet thought-provoking...Entrancing characters, exciting descriptions and piercingly clear action keep the story moving swiftly and surely to a satisfying conclusion.”
[An] incredible journey through a wondrously weird and surprising world...I found myself both delighted and fascinated as every layer was slowly unpacked. Just the right mix of awesome."
“Suddenly, the pages are whipping by, 50 at a clip as mysteries are uncovered, miracles happen and assassins begin scaling the walls. … Bennett is plainly a writer in love with the world he has built — and with good cause. It's a great world, original and unique, with a scent and a texture, a sense of deep, bloody history, and a naturally-blended magic living in the stones.”
"Robert Jackson Bennett deserves a huge audience. This is the book that will earn it for him. A story that draws you in, brilliant world building, and oh my God, Sigrud. You guys are going to love Sigrud."
--Brent Weeks, New York Times bestselling author of The Way of Shadows
"Smart and sardonic, with wry echoes from classic tales mixed up in an inventive, winning narrative. [Bennett is] a master of the genre."
"An excellent spy story wrapped in a vivid imaginary world."
--Library Journal (starred)
A rich, layered, thoughtful story, full of gods and magic and characters that feel unflinchingly true…every once in a while I read a book that’s so well done, I find myself wanting to punch the author in the face out of pure envy. Congratulations, Mr. Bennett – you just made the face-punching list!
--Jim C. Hines, Hugo Award winning author of Libriomancer
"Alien and human at the same time, Bennett's world is engrossing and fascinating. The pacing kept me reading far later than was healthy."
--Mur Lafferty, Campbell Award winning author of Playing for Keeps
About the Author
ROBERT JACKSON BENNETT is the author of American Elsewhere, The Troupe, The Company Man, and Mr. Shivers. His books have been awarded the Edgar Award, the Shirley Jackson, and the Philip K. Dick Citation of Excellence. He lives in Austin with his wife and son.
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I'll be honest, it took me awhile to get into this book. In the end, I thought there was a lot to like, but some of the themes took awhile to develop. I thought it was going to be a murder mystery in a fantasy setting, since there is a body discovered very early on, and the murder does eventually get solved, but that is not really the main focus of the story.
There are a lot of ideas here that are put together really well and are a little bit different. In the city where the bulk of the story takes place (called Bulikov), when the native gods disappeared from the world, their works went with them, resulting in something called the Blink, where large portions of buildings -- and in some cases, large numbers of people -- just vanished. So there were a lot of stairs to nothing in Bulikov, hence the name of the book. After-effects of the Blink have mostly settled out, but a few are woven throughout the story and they are interesting and well thought out on the part of the author.
As our main character, Shara, investigates the murder, she uses scientific, systematic, methodical means, even though it is becoming apparent that the laws of physics, as we know them, are not always operating. So the clash of science and magic is there, but it doesn't play out in what I would consider a conventional way. (Don't worry, it works.)
Shara is from Saypur, an island that was a colony of Continental concerns way back when. However, when the gods disappeared, the Continent was in disarray and Saypur was not, having not had any native divinities. Saypur stepped in and takes over a lot of functions, which is an unusual turn of events but one that makes perfect sense within the world of the story. Also a little different is the fact that Shara's people, based on names and some physical descriptions, seem to be darker skinned folks (think from South Asia, also maybe Iran and/or Turkey, and environs), whereas the people of Bulikov have mostly Slavic-sounding names. So it is a bit of a reversal of the usual situation where lighter-skinned people subjugate others. However, racism, when it appears, takes similar forms. I mostly bring this up as an example of a trope the author has turned on its head and run with in a way that I would consider to be successful. I should note, however, that the populace of Bulikov plays very little role in the story. We are primarily occupied with the activities of the Saypuri crew and some Bulikov elites. That is a bit more conventional in fiction.
The rulers from Saypur have instituted something called the Worldly Regulations, which prohibit discussion of the Divinities, their worship, and even learning about the full histories of the continental cities. At first glance, this seems overly cruel. Why deny people the chance to understand their heritage? However, when you learn more about the Divinities, themselves, and the methods and creatures they employed to carry out their edicts, they were often not very nice. They created harsh sets of laws that were impossible to follow, yet imposed equally harsh punishments for failure to comply. They created (or turned people into) nasty, flesh-eating creatures. They imbued their powers into objects with sometimes very dangerous results. So the thought starts to creep in, maybe the people are better off without these Divinities. I don't think there are any easy answers, and there's some colonial paternalism going on, but I think the author does a better job of presenting two sides to the argument than many others in the genre.
At any rate, there were a lot of good ideas in this book, a lot of issues where two sides were set against each other and the actual consequences were thought through. I did enjoy thinking about those, and they contributed to my sense that world-building in this book was wonderful.
But, world-building is only one element of a book. You also have writing style, plot, characters, etc. I find I don't have a lot to say about writing style. There were no verbal tics that irritated me. The writing did a good job of conveying the atmosphere, of describing the action, etc. The writing told the story rather than being the star of the story, which is my preference in a novel. Flowery prose is not really my thing.
Shara and company were sympathetic. I would say not too many of the side characters were fleshed out. The Saypuri governor of Bulikov had a set of characteristics the author had clearly decided on beforehand, and he took the opportunity on several occasions to remind us of those (e.g., her athleticism, her desire to retire to somewhere warm and sunny). But she doesn't get much deeper than that. Shara's old school friend (and lover) Vohannes is more complex, although again, he seems to me to be a combination of predetermined characteristics (relating to his upbringing as the second son of a rich and prominent family and his sexual orientation). Shara's secretary/bodyguard, Sigurd, is more complex, more than the sum of his parts, perhaps because we only learn his true heritage late in the book. I think Sigurd is written particularly well. And then there is Shara. I did say she was sympathetic, and I meant it. You find yourself on her side and you want her to succeed. But she seems less interesting, to me, than some of the side characters. I can describe more of her attributes -- competitiveness, compulsive tea drinker, small-framed without many curves, glasses, studious -- than for the other characters, but I kind of feel like I've seen this character before. (OK, although I wear contact lenses now, she sounds a lot like me. Even to the point of being within a few years of my age. Maybe I am not as interested in characters who are like me? Or just not used to encountering them. Shara is less risk-averse than I am, I suppose.)
For what it's worth, it's honestly quite weird for me to be able to list character attributes like this. Unless they are referred to in the text quite frequently. I will say, you don't notice this while you are reading, but when you think about it later, the lists of attributes hit you. I feel like this compartmentalization is a little odd, is all. Too planned, or something.
Anyway, the thing I haven't talked about is the plot. It doesn't go where you think it will (although there was one thing Shara didn't notice about a character until it was too late that I saw with a 5-mile-high neon sign several chapters earlier, it was otherwise not predictable), but the foundation is laid in the story, through flashbacks (there are a lot, but they didn't bother me here, and they always served to advance the main narrative), through inventory lists, through discussions between characters, through the italicized parts at the beginnings of chapters, so that you never feel a sense of deus ex machina. It takes awhile to really figure out what the main story is going to be and I think this is why I had some trouble getting into it.
At any rate, I did quite enjoy this by the end and will be reading book two fairly soon.
This book is worth reading just to get to know the character of Sigrud. He was amazing! I found myself he was the main character, but he for sure stole the show. The story did take awhile to build, and I did find that the slowly-building plot suddenly went into hyper-drive the last 150 pages or so, which made me feel that some steps were missing. There was so much background information provided, and then it feels with little actual reasoning behind why Shara is able to solve it the mystery dissolves. Still, the main characters who make up this world are great. They are complicated, lovable and make you want to get to know them better.
This is a very interesting universe that I would recommend any fantasy lover dive into.
The magic isn't terribly important, because the gods are dead and magic comes from them. The main character (Shara) doesn't spend a hundred pages learning spells or enchantments or anything like that. We do see her perform some magic, but it's not really a story about how cool and awesome the magic system is.
The characters are (mostly) all reasonable people. Perhaps because the most recent other book I read involved a lot of characters who did little more than yell at each other, it was very nice to read about real people, in all their guises—some down to earth, some desperately wanting to get out and live it up, some idealist to the point of insanity, some religiously fanatic. Other reviewers have mentioned Sigrud as stealing the show; I also very much liked Mulaghesh, and thought Vohannes and Shara both felt very real. In short, I sympathized with all of the main characters. I also really liked that the romance didn't take over, nor did it become some way for one party to use the other. I don't want to give too much away, but while there was some romance in this book, it also felt very real to me, not like a fairy tale adventure in love and betrayal. Love is complicated; so it was in City of Stairs, but there were other more urgent things to worry about most of the time.
My main quibbles were with the plotting and foreshadowing. None of the plot twists made me want to flip back a hundred pages to see if I could find that thing where the one person said that thing ... Everything was foreshadowed, but recently enough that it was easy to remember and thus easy to figure out what was going to happen. But it was still exciting, and fun to read, and compelling enough that I read it in three days. There was one questionable scene with Vohannes ("I'm a terrible person because of my terrible childhood!") but I thought the book dealt very well with real world issues and challenges.
Unlike other reviewers, I didn't find the story to be slow at all, even in the beginning. And I thought it was great when it suddenly turned really funny in the second half (though that might have been airplane-induced travel insanity talking too). This was a fantasy story that I very much enjoyed. I loved that Shara, no matter how competent she was, still didn't know everything ("actually, I have no idea how to unlevitate that glass that I just levitated"), I loved that Mulaghesh was a softie at heart despite all of her bravado, I liked Sigrud's calculated competence ("now that I think about it, I can kill it"), I liked Vohannes' idealism. It's a long book but well worth the read.
(All quotations are strictly paraphrasing, because I'm too lazy to go back and look them all up.)