A story about deceased divinities, set in a fantasy world where it is forbidden to even mention the names of the gods and goddesses, full of intrigue and treachery, jilted lovers, angry brothers, and the ruins of a great empire…City of Stairs has everything needed for an enjoyable read.
Robert Jackson Bennet crafts rich characters with long back stories, interesting mythological and philosophical issues, and complex ethical problems. The resulting story is a breath of fresh air for the fantasy genre, especially considering it isn’t the usual “Western European knights in shining armour and dragons” affair. Far from it: in this world, Russian-inspired (or at least Eastern European – the names alone give it away) have been subjugated by an Indian-like society. The author also eschews bad stereotypes based on our world, which is a relief!
City of Stairs follows the spy Shara and her assistant Sigrud, agents of Saypuri, a series of islands located south of a giant Continent. They are called to the heart of the Continent in Bukilov, the titular City of Stairs, to investigate the violent murder of a Saypuri historian. The Saypurians have ruled over the Continent since the catastrophic Blink 70 years ago, when Kaj, the mysterious Saypuri inventor, killed several of the local deities.
Intrigue, politics, murder, intimidation and a little romance all appear in the complex plot, and while the first half of the book is slow and quite expository, the pace and intensity picks up in the last third of the book.
The characters are really what makes the book engaging: the protagonist Shara isn’t introduced for a while, but when she does all the pieces begin falling into place. She’s tough and resourceful, but despite that, is probably the least interesting of the main cast. Her assistant Sigrud is capable of standing up to deities, a “strong and silent” type that actually gets some character development and backstory. They have a strong relationship in a refreshing “no romance” friendship that can be moving, hilarious and relatable (barring the weird magics and dead gods).
Even the side and minor characters are enjoyable and bring some flavour to the story – especially as Jackson Bennet writes some sections from the perspective of other characters, which offers great insight into the rich world of Bulikov and the Continent. The only let down is the primary antagonist, who appears quite late into the book and with less backstory than most others.
City of Stairs is refreshing for many reasons. First, the Divinities: their limited immortality is intriguing and an original take on the same old fantasy gods – after all, there’s nothing more boring than an infallible god or goddess. Second, it is totally removed from the “knights and dragons” style fantasy that is rife in fiction, which is refreshing – the two main races in the book are described as similar to our world’s Eastern Europeans and Indians, which gives the book a completely different tone. Another interesting aspect is the philosphical and ethical issues explored – without giving away too much, it deals with issues like what history is, why gods exist, and the role of states in the concept of truth and identity.
It then ends very suddenly, and whilst all the loose ends are tied up (not as nicely as I personally would have liked, but what can you do), it does leave you wanting a little bit more.
In conclusion, definitely something to consider reading if you’d like to shake your fantasy fiction up. The mythology of the book was complex and enjoyable, although sometimes somewhat convoluted. But despite the complexities of the plot, the language was relatively simple and easy to follow which was a blessing, considering the heavy concepts being thrown about. Both main and side characters were engaging and interesting, with complex motivations and goals – the only exception being the primary antagonist, who was mysterious but not very well fleshed out. If you’re after a fantasy story with a lot political intrigue, this is for you.