Fantasy Review: ‘City of Stairs’ by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of StairsOnce the center of a godly Empire, and the seat of the five continental deities, the city of Bulikov is now just an impoverished colony of Saypur. As a onetime slave colony of Bulikov, Saypur is not the most benevolent of colonialist. Bulikov was near invincible, with the five gods giving them the power of miracles with a snap of a finger. But Saypur demands not only that history not repeat, but that history must be completely forgotten. All traces of the deities have been deleted; even the symbols of the old gods are a crime to display. So when a Saypur intellectual researching the past that the people of Bulikov are not even allowed to acknowledge turns up dead? There probably were not a whole lot of people surprised.

Into this firestorm enters Shara and her secretary, both uninvited. Showing as a junior diplomat Shara is actually one of the most effective intelligence officers Saypur has to offer, and a former friend of the dead man. Initially digging into the murder of an unassuming researcher she soon finds herself deep in conspiracies, cults to the old gods, and a sinking feeling that not everything buried is dead.

You want to read this book. I have read a lot of good books dealing with lands abandoned by gods, the death of deities, and the nature of belief.   City of Stairs did this as well as any, and told a hell of a story along the way. I could write this review as a checklist of how to do things right. Start with the city of Bulikov itself. The former glory is still visible in places, but it is a land much changed by the ‘blink.’ When the mythical Kaj slew the continent’s gods everything attached to them died as well. And because one of those gods is a builder whose hand was in the very foundation of the city? Bulikov, the City of Stairs is an architectural marvel, still trying to work its way back to a reality that no longer the divine to counteract things like physics.

Setting isn’t enough for you? An unassuming women who loves to be underestimated is your protagonist. Yes she is a spy, but she is also a pain in the side of the people who employ her and a lifelong enthusiast of the god’s her people are trying so hard to suppress the memory of. She is smart, but not so smart as to always be ahead of the game. It is nice to see someone struggle through the mystery, yet not rely on luck or the stupidity of the villain. And Sigrud, her Viking berserker of a ‘secretary?’ Damn, I would hate to spoil everything he brings to the table. The fact that Shara is the alpha in this investigation says something about her, because he is one hell of a secondary cast member.

But what really shines here is the weaving of past and present until we get a better idea of the nature of the divinities and their effect on the land and people they ruled… and the affect those things had on them. It takes the whole book to get where we need to go, which sounds obvious but often proves to be so very hard. There are no wasted pages here, every back story shows its importance; major questions are answered while some minor questions have no one around who can.

Lest one think this is some philosophical ramble better suited for literary elitist than the average fantasy lover let me clarify. This is an intelligent book, but it isn’t one that gets lost in its own cleverness. There is still a murder investigation, nasty monsters, miracles to be performed, and even a mystical battle to be had. Though this is not a non-stop action thrill ride there should be plenty to keep even the sword and sorcery fan excited.

I read this book in April. It comes out in September. By the time this review is actually posted I fully plan on reading it again.

5 Stars

Copy for review provided by publisher.

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