Title: 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
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.