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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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Top customer reviews
① - There is no love story. Well that isn’t specifically true. There is a story that involve two people who were a couple in the past but really that is it. In the present tense of the story there isn’t any romantic hopefuls. I love having someone in by books to ship even if nothing comes from it for books and books.
② - It isn’t my typical fantasy set up. There are no dragons to be slain or lands to explore. No this is more of a political intrigue. A man is dead and someone has come to figure out why.
③ - Religion. There is a ton of it. I sometimes like the addition of religion to a story but I’m not usually fond of stories when it is one of the main driving forces of the plot. Unless you are Brandon Sanderson and you can blend the Religion, Politics, Culture and World building all together and not many can.
So this should have been a 2 star read for me. I should have been bored and maybe…possibly dare I say it even…not complete the book. But the reason I held on and finished the entire thing was because I loved the city, Shara and her secretary Sigrud. Sigrud is a hammer in a world of nails, and he is satisfied knowing only that. He is also one of the deadliest and coolest characters I’ve read in a long time. I also loved that he was not beautiful but came from a distant land with scars, horrors and a devastating past.
“Life is full of beautiful dangers, dangerous beauties," says Sigrud. He stares into the sky, and the white sunlight glints off his many scars. "They wound us in ways we cannot see: an injury ripples out, like a stone dropped in water, touching moments years into the future.”
Then there is Shara and she isn’t the beautiful and striking character that can flirt her way into men’s heads and hearts and coerce there trust that way. She is bookish and even boyish looking since she weighs about 95lbs soaking wet. But she is brilliant in her own ways and is not going to let anyone get away with anything they shouldn’t. I was pulling for her as it seems that she is alone with no one in the world to trust but Sigrud who if you are going to go into a city against unknown enemies you would want on your side.
Then last there is a city. It is a place that gods used to live with the people and when the gods were killed it was like the city forgot how to be a city and so some of it sort or vanished and there are building that just stopped being there and stairs that end up going to nowhere now but sometimes out of the corner of your eye it is like you can almost still see something. I had the best time trying to figure out where parts of the city went and how could you get there again.
This is a story about a race who had conquered another race for years and used them as slaves. But now the slaves have revolted and hold the power and turn about is not all fair play it seems.
“Just because you won the War doesn't mean you can do whatever you like!' says Yaroslav. 'And just because we lost it doesn't mean you can strip us of everything we value!”
I felt bad for both sides of that as it seems like no one is really right but also no one is really all wrong either. It is complicated a lot like Game of Thrones (I only use this reference because most people have read or watched the show) but when you can see all of the sides it isn’t like you can root for a single side because you understand the intricacies of it. It is more that you root for certain characters and hope that things work out for them regardless of the side they are on. That is what I felt like in this story.
I loved the magic, gods and revelations that were made as the story got going. There were some really cool reveals along the way and overall after hitting 20% I was pretty into the rest of the story.
Not something I would have read had I not been pushed by a few friends but something that I’m glad I picked up. Even if there wasn’t a clear ship to jump on.
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.
Most recent customer reviews
Enjoyed every word.
The story line and characters are very engaging and memorable.
I'm looking forward to reading the sequel.
The reader is kept engaged and drawn towards our main characters' and their inexorable conclusions.Read more