September 16, 2014 by mmileti
Robert Jackson Bennett has been an award winning speculative fiction author since his debut in 2010. However, his newest novel, City of Stairs, is sure to elevate Bennett from an acclaimed author to a genre legend. There are so many wonderful aspects of this novel that it is difficult to know where to begin. City of Stairs is an incredibly well written and intelligent novel, it is engrossing, stunningly original, and the character development is truly remarkable. Though the first half of the novel is slower paced and full of intricate world building, it is still engaging. By the time the reader gets to the second half of the book, it becomes obvious that City of Stairs is a perfect example of a speculative fiction novel with the whole package: amazing world building, great writing, wonderful characters, and an exciting plot line with shocking twists. After reading this novel I am a bigger fan of Bennett’s work than ever before, and I would definitely place him within my top ten favorite speculative fiction authors.
City of Stairs is set in the city of Bulikov, which was once a cultural hub for a continent that was backed by the powers of the Gods, and that used this power to conquer the world. But when a mysterious weapon killed Bulikov’s divine protectors, the conquerors suddenly became the conquered, and much of their history, the architecture of the city, and culture disappeared in the blink of an eye. The continental’s former slaves have now become the world’s new geopolitical power, and they repress what history is left to the people of Bulikov in order to ensure that its citizens will stay subjugated and never return to their former glory. Bulivok is a rundown city, full of a ragged and derelict people, and its numerous streets and staircases that lead to nowhere remain a monument to all that was lost. But when a seemingly harmless historian is brutally murdered, it is up to newly arrived spymaster Shara Thivani and her secretary Sigrud (a silent giant from a land to the north) to catch a killer and uncover a plot that may once again change Bulikov forever.
It is rare to come across a novel that has proficient character development and intricate world building, and that is also a nail biting adventure. In this novel Bennett manages to cleverly blend an enormous amount of background information and an epic mystery adventure into one story. The first half of the novel is where the majority of the world building and character development take place, and the reader becomes intimately familiar with the history of the Continent and its former slaves the Saypuri, while at the same time getting to know the ruins of the once magnificent city of Bulikov. The reader is also introduced to the tension between the two countries, and the mystery of a murder and a plot devised by a group of continentals who wish to restore Bulikov to what it once was. Bennett takes a long time to set up his story, and its complexity ensures that a lot of details must be imparted to the reader.
Miraculously, Bennett accomplishes this without giving the reader an enormous information dump, and weaves these details effortlessly into the plot. Despite this, the beginning of the novel is sometimes confusing, and the plot does not become extremely fast paced until the second half of the book. I urge anyone who is not immediately happy with the story’s pacing to keep reading. Once the reader becomes familiar with the story, the plot opens up into a wonderfully thought provoking and fascinating read. I loved City of Stairs from the beginning, and really enjoyed learning the intricate details of Bennett’s world, but I know that this kind of depth of setting is not for everyone. Fortunately, by the end this novel becomes an amazing story that has elements that will satisfy readers of many different tastes; it truly is a must read novel for any speculative fiction fan.
One of the reasons City of Stairs kept me turning pages late into the night was the incredible characterization of Shara and Sigrud. Both characters are unbelievably complex, and their pasts remain a mystery to the reader throughout most of the book. They are both sympathetic characters in their own way, and though they are flawed, they each contain aspects to make the reader care deeply for them. Shara is extremely intelligent and brave, while Sigrud is an ass-kicking giant with a shady past. Their relationships with other characters are complicated, and they are both outsiders and are renowned simultaneously. I loved that Bennett made the effort to let his readers know his characters so intimately, because when the story’s real action starts, we are so invested in the lives of these characters that it becomes impossible to put the novel down. Also, Bennett writes in a way that makes the city of Bulikov a character in itself, and the reader becomes equally devoted to learning Bulikov’s divine secrets.
Though the underlying elements of this novel are familiar, Bennett does a wonderful job of creating a completely original story. His characters are incredibly diverse, his setting is truly one of a kind, and his relationship between the mortal and the divine is distinctly fascinating. There are so many different features to City of Stairs, and it is so complex that it is the kind of novel that needs to be read several times to fully appreciate. I would highly recommend it to fans of all different kinds of speculative fiction, and urge anyone that does not like it at first to stick with the story. It grows and expands into an excellent novel that is both thought provoking and exciting. This is the best novel I have read so far this year, and I cannot wait to read what Bennett puts out next.
My rating: 9/10
I received a copy of this novel from Netgalley, and when my e-reader broke from Blogging for Books. Thank you to these organizations and to the publisher for the chance to read this book in return for an honest review.