Novel Review: City of Stairs

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From Goodreads:

Years ago, the city of Bulikov wielded the powers of the Gods to conquer the world. But after its divine protectors were mysteriously killed, the conqueror has become the conquered; the city’s proud history has been erased and censored, progress has left it behind, and it is just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power. Into this musty, backward city steps Shara Divani. Officially, the quiet mousy woman is just another lowly diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, Shara is one of her country’s most accomplished spymasters — dispatched to investigate the brutal murder of a seemingly harmless historian. As Shara pursues the mystery through the ever-shifting physical and political geography of the city, she begins to suspect that the beings who once protected Bulikov may not be as dead as they seem — and that her own abilities might be touched by the divine as well.

Robert Jackson Bennet plays a nutcase on Twitter. And he does it quite convincingly. I was expecting, at the very least, for City of Stairs to be filled with some of the same craziness that doesn’t really seem to add up, even though I’ve seen not only friends but also authors and editors whose opinion I respect saying nothing but good about it on Twitter and blogs.

As usual, they were right. City of Stairs was surprisingly perfect for my tastes.

The plot itself takes a while to get going, and that’s not a problem at all. Accept that there’s going to be a bit of a learning curve during the first few chapters, and relax. The world is cool. It’s heavily Russian-influenced, and so it’s probably best to accept that you’re never going to pronounce the names quite correctly.

But once you get through those first few chapters, things begin to pick up, and the book is a sequence of brilliant moments by the end.

The book uses a lot of tropes—the small but highly intelligent female protagonist, the hulking barbarian brute with more depth than first meets the eye, the wealthy former lover with the insufferable attitude…

It’s all there. And it’s all done just right. These characters are not just the tropes—they’re people. Who just happen to conform to the tropes, but you love them anyway. Especially Sigrud.

The setting, as I said before, is largely Russian based. Other than that, it’s a fairly standard fantasy milieu, with fallen gods and ancient but unpredictable magic scattered around the pages. Epic battles, long histories, and well-kept secrets dot the background, giving it a rich, well-imagined feel to it. The world of Shaypur and the Continent is one that feels immediately familiar and at the same time fresh and exciting.

The ending is done just right, and I feel like, even without a sequel, City of Stairs is quite satisfying in its own right. That being said, there is a sequel! City of Blades! I can’t wait for this one!

The book made the long-list for the Hugo this year, and, without the Puppy slates, likely would have been a finalist. It deserved that position–it’s definitely in the top 5 books I read last year. I was enjoying it so much by the end that, when I left my copy at home, I bought the e-book on my phone at full price just to get the last 50 pages for my morning train ride.

In summary, City of Stairs was a brilliant epic fantasy, told as an intriguing mystery story set in a pseudo-Russian society with gods, magic, spies, murder, the whole nine yards. It should have been on the Hugo ballot last year, and you need to go out and get a copy now so that you’re ready when the sequel drops in January. Five of five stars without question.

Robert Jackson Bennett.

City of Stairs on Goodreads.

City of Stairs on Amazon.

Favorite Books of 2014

This list is going to be presented in 2 parts. The first part is the books I read for the first time in 2014, but which were not released that year. The second is 2014 releases that I read and really enjoyed. I didn’t put any rereads on this list, to prevent it from being 100% Sanderson. Neither list has a strict number of books on it, they’re just however many books I really enjoyed. I’m hoping this list will be longer next year, as I want to get more reading done. (Goals/resolutions post coming… Tomorrow?)

2014 Most enjoyed backlist books.

3. The Last Unicorn

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This is something of a classic that a lot of people couldn’t believe that I’d never read–and I see why. It’s not an epic tale, but it’s a touching one. It’s a beautiful story that just resonates in some way that is timeless and is difficult to describe. Really good read, and quick too. Definitely recommended.

2. The Android’s Dream

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I think one of my problems with many sci-fi novels is that they try to dig into the technology to make it “hard” sci-fi, and they do it wrong. Often, it’s obvious that the author has no idea what they are talking about, and it just makes me cringe. This happens particularly often in the realm of computers… Or perhaps I just notice it more because I’m a computer science major in college and spend an unhealthy amount of time working with the things every day. That’s why The Android’s Dream was so incredibly refreshing. It’s computer technology, hackers, aliens, and all the stuff that makes sci-fi cool. Done right. It’s very accurate, but it’s also riotously funny, completely self-contained, and never gets distracted from the hugely entertaining plot. This one really exceeded my expectations and I’m surprised there isn’t more hype about it. You can find my review here.

1. A Storm of Swords

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Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire is a modern classic, and it’s hard to believe that I only started reading this series in 2013 and finished in 2014. (Up to A Dance with Dragons, the last book that is actually out.) GRRM is an absolute master of characterization and satisfying, interesting grey characters. I’m constantly left in awe of his work, and the second half A Storm of Swords, with The Red and Purple Weddings, the trial and combat, and the appearance of a certain someone in the epilogue, is one of the most gut wrenching and amazing things I’ve ever read. You can get away with not reading the books after this, but everyone should at least read up through here. It would be criminal not to.

2014 Most enjoyed releases.

6. What If?

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This is a non-fiction book, which is why I’ve stuck it at the end of the list. It’s quite a departure from my usual fare–I typically only read books like this when I have to for a class. This one, based on the popular What If? columns that xkcd writer Randall Munroe offers up on his website, is simultaneously one of the most entertaining and educational books I’ve ever read. You don’t need to be an uber nerd to understand what’s going on here–Munroe does a great job of explaining the results of his questions without going into the unnecessary details of the formulas he had to use. You will enjoy this one regardless. I promise. My review is here.

5. The Mirror Empire.

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I really enjoyed this one a lot. It had some of the most creative worldbuilding that I’ve ever seen. More inventive, honestly, than even some of Sanderson’s worlds. It really blew my mind, and the plot is utterly brilliant as well. I wish I could have said I completely loved it, but it left me confused in places and I felt it could have used a little smoothing out. Still, I did enjoy it, and I have high hopes for the next book in the series, Empire Ascendant. My review can be found here.

4. Ghost Train to New Orleans.

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This was a fun little read that I wasn’t quite expecting to be this good. I’m not a huge urban fantasy fan (Though a few of my friends are trying to convert me.), but I enjoyed the first book in the series enough to get this one on release day. If we’re going purely by enjoyment versus expectations, this one exceeded my expectations more than any other book on the list. My review resides here.

3. The Crimson Campaign.

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Brian McClellan in one of those guys who just won’t stop writing good stuff. In-between producing an amazing novel every year, he’s written several short stories and novellas in his powder mage world, which explores what happens when magic meets (and comes from) gunpowder. It’s a fascinating blend that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and his ability to ramp up the tension is superb. His first book, Promise of Blood, was an excellent, solid, four-star book that even earned him a well deserved cover-quote from Sanderson himself. The Crimson Campaign was even better in every way, and I tore through it as soon as I had the chance. Highly recommended. My review can be found here.

2. The Emperor’s Blades.

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This book was getting a lot of hype, so I figured that, when I received an ARC, I should probably read it. I did. I’m glad that I did. It was utterly incredible. I have never read a book with such incredibly tense pacing, certainly not of this length. What Staveley has managed here is nothing short of magical, especially in his debut. This isn’t just a book that I highly recommend, this is a book that I very nearly demand that you read. My drooling review is here.

1. WORDS OF RADIANCE.

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(I know that’s not the cover, but it’s one of the amazing end-pages and it’s just too beautiful to not use.)

I do not have enough superlatives to describe this book. Sanderson’s early books, Elantris and Warbreaker, are good, with very powerful surprise endings. He outdid himself with the Mistborn trilogy, which is still one of the most feels-inducing, beautiful things I have ever read. There are, perhaps, only a handful of books in all of fantasy literature that I would compare to the Mistborn trilogy, and most of those would be to describe how Mistborn is better. Then Sanderson wrote The Way of Kings. It is incredible. Simply put, when I read it, my initial thoughts (When I could think again) went something like, “This is the best book I have ever read. There will not be a better book. I’m sorry to all of the other books I ever read.” I felt the same way when I reread it last year. And then Words of Radiance came out. My mind has never, ever, been blown so much. World of Radiance is as big of an improvement on The Way of Kings as the Way of Kings is over every other book written. I was not able to write a review that did this book justice. I’ll try when I reread it, but I’m not making any promises.

That’s it for me. I read a total of 42 books, plus numerous novellas and short stories in 2014, and these were the ones I most enjoyed. I hope everyone else had a great year and found many books that they enjoyed as well! I’m looking forward to 2015 and the books it will bring. 🙂

What I Read

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The books above are some of my favorite books, period. Some of them are long-time friends, others are new. They are all beautifully written, strongly imagined, and they define, for me, the genre of Epic Fantasy. This genre is where I live. Let me try my best to explain a little bit about what Epic Fantasy is. There’s been a lot of debate about this, and my definition is by no means definitive. It just reflects how I feel, and what tells *me* that the book is Epic.

First, size. The shortest of the books above is over 250,000 words, five times what new novels are supposed to be. These books are what are called chihuahua killers. They’re physically massive. They are bricks. I love the feel of a good, solid book in my hand. If you are able to print the author’s name and the name of the book horizontally, and large enough that I can read it from several feet away, while scanning a bookshelf, then that’s already a recommendation for the book. Also, the books are almost always the first book in a larger series, but not always. The Sword of Shannara is complete tale all by itself, and the other books in the Shannara universe are only loosely connected as far as characters are concerned.

But size extends beyond physical size. It also means the size of the world. Epic Fantasy is a sub-genre of high fantasy. High fantasy had its own worlds. Generally, they’re recognizable as our world, with some differences, and usually a much lower technology level. In an Epic Fantasy, we need to see large parts of this world, and dive deeply into some of them. Almost always, the characters need to range across the world, perhaps even coming from different parts of it. The story-line often involves a journey across this world, through the many different cultures and races that inhabit it. The races and cultures also make up part of the setting. All of the books pictured above have at least one race of sentient, non-human beings in them.

There needs to be a lot of interesting world-building behind any Epic. Rothfuss said in an interview, “Rule of thumb: 10 percent of what you know should be in your story. For me, it’s about 4 percent.” I can tell when I’m reading a book where 90%+ of the world-building is in the story. These stories are either incredibly info-dumpy, and really need some of that information trimmed away, or feel like they’re thin, and if you poke too hard, you’ll find gaps where the author doesn’t actually know what’s going on. If you have a massive backdrop for your story, and you only show us part of it, but you do it competently, I can tell that the rest of it is there. And that sucks me in.

The cast of characters. This one is a little bit shaky, but I’m going to argue it anyway. Most Epic Fantasy books have a large cast of viewpoint characters. The Wheel of Time, well. Just look here. The Name of the Wind breaks this a little bit, as there’s really only one viewpoint character throughout the book. But if you count the number of characters he interacts with regularly as main characters as well, then it’s definitely expansive.

Not only are there a lot of characters, but the main character, or characters, need to have a massive arc. They need to go a long way, and have a lot of progression. Often this takes place as a sort of coming of age story, though it always manifests in some way as a series of realizations of what life really is, and what ones’ purpose is.

Something that’s not talked about very much, but I feel makes a *good* Epic Fantasy is a strong ending to each book. I think that The Way of Kings does this particularly well, and it left me satisfied, yet wanting more, for the time until the second one will be published. It’s not necessary for a book to be Epic, but I definitely like to have it, and feel cheated without it. You have a massive canvass to write on, and you’re using all of it. So point it at an ending, and use it to make the ending even more powerful, even more emotionally moving for the reader. If you can do that to good effect, then you’ve created something truly special.

Why do I read Epic Fantasy? Because of the depth and richness of the world. They feel so utterly real, and they are so engaging. I read, in general, to lose myself in the book. I’m often depressed, and if I can get away from reality for a while, lose myself in a really good book, it helps a lot. When it’s an Epic Fantasy, I can loose myself for hours on end, emotionally invest myself in the characters, be rewarded, and be utterly swept away by the originality and engaging nature of the world.

In short: I don’t do drugs. I do Epic Fantasy.