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.