The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions — until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself — first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it — stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.
Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country's most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem — and that Bulikov’s cruel reign may not yet be over.
City of Stairs is a superb novel, offering imaginative new takes on classic fantasy ideas and themes, populated by diverse and well-realised characters, and presented in excellent prose. This was one of my most-anticipated novels of 2014, and it exceeded by expectations.
I’m going to keep this review concise, as every way I think about writing it doesn’t do the novel justice.
The novel follows the investigation of a murder. Sort of: Shara gets a little distracted and diverted by other goings-on in the city. We slowly get to know the various characters, although the majority of the novel is from Shara’s perspective. Her companion/enforcer Sigrud is one of the most badass characters in a series I’ve read in a long time. Just wait until his scene with Urav…
The mythology Bennett has created for the now-deceased deities feels complete and very cool. I particularly liked the idea that, if a God is killed, its creations disappear with it – a really nice twist on mythologies that claim that “The God built X, Y, and Z…”, and how their existence is inseparable from that of their creations. As the epigraph for chapter four states,
However Taalhavras presented himself, the Kaj directed his machinery at him and immediately struck him down, just as he had Voortya.
But since Taalhavras was the builder god, all of what he built vanished the moment he vanished; and, judging by the enormous devastation of the Blink, he had built much more than anyone knew. Taalhavras had, in fact, made significant alterations to the very fundaments of the Continent’s reality. The nature of these alterations probably cannot be understood by mortal minds. However, once these alterations vanished – one imagines supports, struts, bolts and nuts and so on falling out of place – the very reality of the Holy Lands abruptly changed.
With the death of the gods, it wasn’t just their physical creations that disappeared. It would seem that the protection or favour of the gods also protected the people from certain other hazards of the world. For example, the oft-mentioned “Plague Years” that followed in the death of Jukov’s wake:
“So Jukov was the last god killed.”
“Yes. The Plague Years came just after, the last bit of Divine protection falling away…”
The investigation itself progresses relatively slowly. I liked this fact, because it meant Bennett could introduce us properly to the characters and give us a decent picture of the city and various cultures. There is a tension in Bulikov, something just under the surface. In the meantime, the colonial rulers are trying to balance their desire to keep the locals downtrodden in return for centuries of oppression, while also trying to maintain peace. Shara is reunited with an old school friend, who is trying to make the most of a bad situation, and hopes to bring more business and prosperity to Bulikov through trade. All of the forces come together in a huge denouement. It’s an extremely satisfying read. The magic system is great, but not used as a crutch (although, towards the end there are some superb pyrotechnics).
Bennett’s writing is impeccable throughout. The flow of the narrative is excellent. Both feel confident and natural – no part of the novel felt forced or contrived (incredible, really, given what happens…). The characters are diverse and well-rounded, engaging and realistic. There’s also some very good social commentary woven into the story (“I have never met a person who possessed a privilege who did not exercise that privilege to the fullest extent that they possibly could…”). There are a few moments of levity. The novel really hits all the right notes and is perfectly balanced.
With City of Stairs, Bennett has probably written the perfect blend of fantasy and crime fiction. Everything works. Probably one of the best books of the year. A must read.