City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of StairsTitle: City of Stairs
Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Published: 9 September 2014
Publisher: Broadway Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, urban fantasy
Rating: 9/10

There’s been a great deal of hype around this novel, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s quite possibly my favourite 2014 publication, competing only with The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine (a totally different kind of story that shouldn’t otherwise be compared with this one).

The story begins with a relatively simple mystery – in the city of Bulikov a well-known Saypuri historian named Efrem Pangyui is found beaten to death. It’s a shocking but unsurprising crime. Bulikov and the rest of the Continent are occupied by Saypur, and a great deal of their history has been censored and suppressed. Dr Pangyui was hated for being given permission to research all that history by the Saypuri government.

When Special Agent Shara Komayd hears about the death, she immediately travels to Bulikov to take charge of the situation before anyone else can. Shara trained Pangyui for his time in Bulikov, she studied the same history at university, and as a member of the most powerful family in Saypur, she has the authority necessary to solve this crime. Accompanying her is her ‘secretary’/bodyguard Sigrud, a Dreyling (a huge, heavily muscled Viking type who specialises in killing people. Very, very violently.)

To understand the significance of this part of the plot, you need to understand the political and mythological worldbuilding that makes this such an amazing book. Saypur and the Continent have a difficult history resulting in a very tense, tangled present-day relationship. For centuries, the Continent thrived on the power of its Divinities – very real, tangible beings whose miraculous abilities defined and maintained people’s lives on the Continent. The Divinities bent the laws of physics to make the Continent into whatever they wanted it to be, while magic and magical artefacts known as miracles were a part of everyday life for the people.

With the power and protection of the Divine, the Continent was able to colonise Saypur. Saypur was thus enslaved until a hero known as the Kaj found a way to kill the Divinities. His army was small and pathetic, but without the Divinities and all they had built, the Continent was crippled. The colonised quickly became the colonisers, and that oppressive dynamic defines the present-day relationships between the two regions. In addition, the loss of the Divinities reduced the Continent to a primitive society, having always relied on the magic of the gods instead of making their own medical and technological advancements. Saypur enjoyed technological superiority and remained content to keep it that way, while scoffing at the poverty and backwardness of the Continent.

In order to force the Continent to submit to a mundane way of life stripped of Divine influence, Saypur imposed the Worldly Regulations, making it illegal not only for anyone to worship the gods, but to acknowledge that they ever existed. Trying to erase history seems to have kept the peace while nourishing a deep-seated hatred for Saypur, especially in Bulikov. Once the magnificent Holy City, it is now a dirty ruin and home to a sect known as the Restorationists, who want to stay true to tradition and reclaim the Continent’s cultural identities even though the gods that made that way of life possible are long gone. So when Pangyui pitched up with permission to study the Divinities, he posed an appalling insult to a society of people who were already poor and oppressed.

This is just the very basics of the worldbuilding – the novel is packed with it, and even toward the end you continue to learn more. Every chapter begins with an excerpt from a historical document, and the investigation itself requires a lot of information about the Divinities, their miraculous artefacts, and their roles on the Continent. It might seem intimidating but as someone who loves mythology, I found every bit of it fascinating. When worldbuilding focuses heavily on politics or complex technology I can get a bit lost, but Bennett’s mythology combines politics, culture and (magical) technology in fantastical narratives that makes all those details as riveting as the most action-packed bits of plot (and there’s plenty of that too).

Equally impressive is the way the worldbuilding just keeps… building. We not just getting random bits of information, or even just information to set the scene, but information that adds depth to the world, the plot and the characters.

For example, the structure of Bulikov itself functions as a powerful image for the way the Worldly Regulations have affected society. The god Taalhavras built a large part of the city, but when the Kaj killed him everything he’d built disappeared immediately, an event known as the Blink. This had the effect of pinching and crumpling the city leaving it with spaces and features that no longer make any sense, including countless staircases leading nowhere (hence, City of Stairs).

In interpersonal terms, this tension arises in the anxious way some Continentals speak to Saypuris, afraid to make any reference to the gods in case they get punished for it. But all this denial of history only serves to emphasise how much it has shaped the present, and this is continually developed in the worldbuilding. For example, a story about the Divinity Kolkan explains why the Continent has such conservative attitudes towards women and sexuality. This, in turn helps us understand Shara’s former lover Vohannes, an aristocrat from the Continent. They fell in love at a university in Saypur, but Vo turned out to be gay (Shara suspects he liked her boyish figure). Homosexuality is banned on the Continent, and this informs Vo’s attitudes towards the gods and his society, which in turn has bearing on the plot.

Shara’s character is perfect for her role because she’s one of very few people in the world who know so much history. In fact, she knows so much about things that people aren’t supposed to know about that she’s not allowed to go home because of how extensively she’ll be questioned. One of the most devastating secrets she holds is the possibility that some of the Divinities are still alive.

What I really, really love about her character, is that all this knowledge makes her a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps the best way to explain this is to compare her to Sigrud. Shara seems unimpressive – small, skinny, bespectacled, always drinking tea. Sigrud is brilliant as the badass of typical badasses – huge, muscular, terrifying. He’s violent, ridiculously hard to kill, but also highly skilled in the stealthier aspects of their work. He’s got some truly awesome action scenes in the book, some of the most entertaining I’ve ever read.

However, there’s a point where Sigrud says that “Shara Komayd is as much a weapon as he is”, and this made me think about her a bit more carefully. What Sigrud says is true, not because she can fight but because she studied obscure subjects. She knows forbidden histories, and she can perform miracles (ie. cast spells) that aren’t supposed to work anymore. In this story, that counts for a lot. Shara Komayd is a badass because she’s a geeky academic. And is that not the perfect heroine for dedicated sff fans?

So we’ve got these incredible characters, fascinating worldbuilding, an intriguing mystery, and lots of action. It also has some very interesting ideas on the nature of gods, religion, and the relationship between humans and the divine. It’s the perfect fantasy book really – highly entertaining, inventive, thought-provoking. Seriously, don’t miss out on this one.

Review of The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett

Title: The Troupe
Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Published: 21 February 2012
Publisher: Orbit
Genre: fantasy, mythology
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
My Rating: 7/10

At 16, George Carole ran away from home to join the vaudeville circuit. His remarkable talents with the piano meant he quickly made money and a name for himself, but then he gives it all up to chase after the mysterious Silenus Troupe. They are the very reason George went into vaudeville – he’s learnt that the Troupe’s leader, Hieronomo (Harry) Silenus is his father, and the circuit gave him the best way of tracking the man down.

But when George finally meets Harry and gets involved with his troupe, he finds nothing is as he expected. Harry is not warm or loving and doesn’t welcome his long-lost son with open arms. He’s a gruff and grumpy man with many burdens who reacts to the discovery of a son with dread rather than happiness. George had dreamed of joining his father’s troupe and touring the country as a famed pianist, but the Troupe has no space for an extra feature, and as it turns out, their purpose was never even entertainment at all.

This is where the novel departed from my expectations as well. The marketing speaks of fantasy tinged with horror, and hints at stage acts that don’t rely on illusion but make use of supernatural realities. This is true, but not in the ways I’d assumed. What is revealed is not merely a fantasy world but a mythos behind the creation and structure of the world as a whole. The plot is not just about the Troupe, but about a desperate attempt to save the world from the evil that is trying to consume it.

In the beginning, we’re told, the Creator sang the world into existence, and then disappeared. Soon after, the darkness came to life and tried to reclaim the world. Much of it was devoured and turned back into the darkness that existed before, until humanity discovered that the First Song, sung by the Creator itself, still existed in the world. They found fragments of the song, and by singing it they could restore and protect the world from the darkness.

Performers have done this throughout the ages, in an endless battle for survival. The Silenus Troupe currently carries this burden, travelling to towns where reality is growing ‘thin’. The Troupe has three amazing acts, but they are just a cover for the fourth act, in which the First Song is performed. No one can ever remember hearing it, but they leave feeling rejuvenated.

Thus George finds himself caught up in something far bigger and more mysterious than the idyllic vaudeville life he imagined. The Troupe generally tells him as little as possible about themselves, their acts and the Troupe’s purpose, even though circumstances seem to be getting increasingly dire. The agents of darkness are right on their heels, and they’ve somehow become more resilient to the power of the Song. The resulting novel is not just a tale about saving the world, but a well-rounded story vividly written characters, emotional depth and existential musings. In fact, I’d say the large-scale, world-in-peril aspect of the plot is couched in a character-based drama. The main characters each have a strong, memorable presence, albeit one that’s weighted down by tragedy. It’s very easy for you to be invested in their emotional tangles and there are quite a few heartfelt moments.

I love the way Bennett handles George as a boy in his late teens, for example. There are a lot of factors playing into George’s character. His musical talent has made him proud, arrogant, and a little too accustomed to getting what he wants. This makes it harder for him to handle the way Harry and The Troupe react toward him. They can be a rather harsh bunch though, so I often felt sorry for George, especially when he’s trying to cope with his father’s attitude toward him. George also falls painfully in love with Colette, the Troupe’s stunningly beautiful, statuesque singer and dancer. Unfortunately, she’s a few years older and has little interest in a 16-year-old boy.

On the more amusing side are George’s attempts to be seen as a stylish intellectual, which typically make him look a bit ridiculous. He quotes “fashionable” articles on composers whose music he’s never heard; he talks about the finest tobacco and whiskeys although he’s only had the cheapest stuff; he wears tweed and waistcoats because “that’s what men of standing wear”. Of course, he also uses some of these things to try and impress Colette, and fails dismally.

Colette herself is an extremely proud, independent woman who also happens to be a dark-skinned person living in the openly racist society that is the USA in the 1910s. She has ways of dealing with this, but you see the pain it causes her as well. Then there’s Stanley, who is easily the most likeable of the characters and my clear favourite. He’s a man who never speaks and always has an air of sadness about him, but he never fails to treat others with kindness and friendliness and he gives the reader a particularly strong emotional connection to the story. Another friendly, but very distant troupe member is Franny – a small, skinny woman who performs a miraculous strongwoman act. Franny never sleeps, often seems out of touch with reality, and is always dressed from head to toe, either in baggy clothes or stained bandages.

And of course there’s the abrasive Harry Silenus. He’s hard to like, being dreadfully rude and sometimes cruel, but nevertheless wins some sympathy from the reader when he reveals himself to be a man suffering under the weight of multiple burdens, with little skill when it comes to dealing with his personal troubles. He’s a man desperately searching for god and meaning, but finding only endless struggle instead.

The novel as a whole, often seems surprisingly religious, thanks to Harry’s yearning and because some aspects of the creation myth at the heart of the plot sounds very much like the Christian one. However, I’d call it spiritual rather than religious. There are some key differences from Christianity and the other two major monotheisms – the Creator is absent, there are no devils  or angels, and neither morality or faith are important issues. However, the characters pose some cosmic questions. Why did the Creator make the world? Where has the Creator gone and would it ever return? Why continue this endless fight against the darkness if everything will die eventually?

A related theme is the longing for fathers and the inadequacy of father figures. George of course, is desperate for a loving father, but Harry almost always hurts him instead. Harry is looking for a creator who abandoned his creation and hasn’t returned to save it. Then there’s the very creepy story of Kingsley, who performs the Troupe’s unsettling puppet act. It’s pretty obvious to the reader that the puppets are alive and Kingsley is only pretending to voice them. It’s a pity that we don’t see that much of the puppets, because they are figures of absolutely delicious horror. The puppets are actually the kind of thing I expected this novel to be about They refer to Kingsley as “Father” and insist that they are “real enough” to be given their freedom. However, the whole ‘father’ concept is pushed to grotesque, terrifying extremes.

Less scary than the puppets, unfortunately, were the villains of this story – the darkness and its agents, who appear as anonymous men in grey suits. There’s a sense of menace to them, but somehow they don’t case as much tension as I would have liked. They’re also known as wolves, even though most of them take the appearance of men, which gets a bit confusing.

Also tainting this story somewhat is that annoying American bias, common to apocalyptic stories, wherein ‘the world’ seems to mean ‘America’. The Silenus Troupe only ever performs on the North American continent and the plot implies that they’re the only ones in the world who perform the song. Based on the mythology however, the entire Earth, if not the universe should be under threat, and the darkness wouldn’t have much trouble devouring the world if its only obstacle never left the States. Of course, myths are typically narrow-minded because they come from cultures that knew little or nothing about the world beyond their own borders. Set in about 1910 in a fantasy version of our world however, this novel doesn’t have that excuse.

But even though this bugged me, it can be ignored  (most of the world is probably used to having to do this). The Troupe wasn’t what I expected, but it’s a good book that boasts wonderfully crafted characters with an ability to keep you emotionally invested. There were times when the story got a bit too sentimental for my tastes, but most of its more emotional moments simply made me feel very strongly for the characters. The resolution of the mystical aspects of the story wasn’t quite what I’d hope it would be, but the novel as whole is nevertheless a solid fantasy read dosed with myth and horror.

The Troupe is being released today. Buy a copy at The Book Depository.