Title: City of Stairs
Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
No. of Pages: 448
Origins: Broadway Books
Release Date: 9 September 2014
Bottom Line: Exciting, extremely well-written, thought-provoking – a perfect example of high fantasy
“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.”
Thoughts: The difficulty with fantasy novels, and the reason why readers shy away from them, is typically the large amount of time spent world-building. For, one has to understand the setting before one can buy into the fantastic elements of the story or understand a character’s motivation. Mr. Jackson circumvents this issue by creating a world that is eerily similar to reality but remains firmly rooted in fiction. Names, places, customs, food – they all have their essential origins in modern-day cultures. Shara drinks tea and makes curry. Many of the cities on the Continent end in “-stan.” The barbarian Dreylings, with their fair hair, blue eyes, and seafaring ways, are spitting images of Nordic Vikings. The familiar elements of Jackson’s world are so recognizable as to confuse readers as to whether this is a secondary world fantasy or a world-within-a-world.
However, it does not take long for readers to understand that Jackson’s world may look familiar but is anything but that. For, in City of Stairs, magic, also known as miracles, and the gods to whom each miracle can be attributed, continue to be a point of contention between the conquered Continentals and the conquering Saypuris. In fact, it may be the only remaining point of contention between the two cultures, and one that continues to cause issues hundreds of years after the first death of the gods. While elements of Shara’s world will be resoundingly well-known to readers, the theology of the gods as well as the politics behind the new world order changes the dynamics of the familiar to make them decisively foreign and fantastic.
Within his story about gods versus humans, religious worship and its place within a government, and conquerors versus the conquered, Jackson provides much food for thought for readers. The Saypuris’ treatment of the old ways and the ongoing Continental resentment is a great example of the delicacy needed by the victors of any war if one hopes to remain at peace. The questions Shara raises about the origins of the gods and their influence on shaping the world are stunning in their astuteness, while religion and politics is always a controversial topic and well worth debating. It may be a fictional world, but there are life lessons one can easily extrapolate for today’s society.
The writing within City of Stairs is outstanding. Every word and phrase serves a distinct purpose. There is an innate crispness to the narrative that keeps the story from wandering down extraneous avenues. Mr. Jackson balances the world-building with his main aim of telling a story, so that the numerous descriptions of this unfamiliar world never detract from the plot or divert a reader’s attention away from the increasing tension. His characters are alive, well-developed, and achingly human, while his descriptions are breathtakingly beautiful in their clarity and achievement. Bulikov is a strange city with unusual customs and a different culture, but Mr. Jackson makes everything crystal clear.
Robert Bennett Jackson may be new to the fantasy genre, but one would never know it. His secondary world is easily recognizable for its similarities to the real world, but it is in his use of magic and gods and the architecture within his secondary world where the story really shines. Not only does he provide readers with an intense, magical whodunit, but he also brilliantly explores the origins of theology and belief systems. Exciting, extremely well-written, and thought-provoking, City of Stairs is a perfect example of high fantasy and in general an amazing novel.