Book Review: City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett (2014)

August 29th, 2014 2:27 pm by Kelly Garbato

Stunning World Building, Complicated Characters, & a Refreshing Take On Religion

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

five out of five stars

More than a thousand years ago, the Divinities stepped out of their world to walk among humans. They were six – Olvos, Kolkan, Jukov, Voortya, Ahanas, and Taalhavras – and among their godlike powers was the ability to alter the very fabric of reality; to bend the laws of nature to suit their desires – and the needs of their followers. The Divinities found an eager and devoted flock on the Continent, which they carved up into six spheres of influence, each governed by the ruling Divinity’s own rules and realities. For their allegiance, the Continentals became the Divinities’ chosen ones, destined to rule over their godless neighbors.

For nearly five hundred years, the Divinities and their followers fought amongst themselves. Seemingly overnight, and perhaps realizing the strength to be found in numbers, the Divinities gathered in the central city of Bukilov – thenceforth known as the Seat of the World – for the Night of the Convening, during which they agreed upon a treaty. This led to the onset of the Continental Golden Age, during which time the Continent experienced a surge in outward expansion as the allied Continentals raided, colonized, and subjugated the people of other countries, including those of Saypur.

Around this time, and apparently spurred by her disapproval of the other Divinities’ increasingly harsh actions, Olvos – arguably the most compassionate and enlightened of the otherwise barbaric gods – withdrew from the world.

For eight hundred years, the Continent ruled over the nation of Saypur, enslaving its citizens and exploiting their natural resources.

And then, in 1631, a mentally disabled girl was executed for burning paper – pages from the Taalvashtava, the sacred book of Tallhavras, found in a broken-down wagon by the side of the road. This final injustice proved to be the spark that lit the Saypuri rebellion.

Led by Avshakta si Komayd – known to history simply as the Kaj – the Saypuris overthrew their Continental masters by doing the unthinkable: assassinating their gods. Within eight years the Kaj had killed four of the remaining six Divinities, using a special weapon whose secrets died with him. As the Divinities dropped, their unique realities crumbled with them: Taalhavras the builder’s temples, steeples, and fountains collapsed, collided, and vanished outright; the many miracles the gods had crafted to suit their followers’ needs ceased to function; and the Continent’s weather patterns reverted to their previous dreary climes.

In Bukilov, the shifting realities caused a tragic phenomenon known as the Blink: seemingly in an instant, much of the infrastructure of the city simply vanished. Along with it, millions of its citizens, never to be seen again. All that remains of the Divinities are the miraculous walls surrounding Bukilov, and the giant staircases leading to nowhere.

In the wake of their victory, Saypur passed the Worldly Regulations, outlawing the possession and use of miraculous objects, the worshiping of the Divinities – even any mention of gods and and miracles became grounds for a fine. (Or worse.) Having been oppressed by the Continentals and their gods for almost a millennia, Saypuris are understandable wary of anything even hinting of the Divine.

Into this morass steps Dr. Efrem Pangyui, ostensibly visiting Bukilov to study and document its history – a slap in the face to people prohibited from doing so themselves. When his body is discovered, beaten to a pulp, it’s up to agent Shara Komayd – great-granddaughter of the famed Kaj – to investigate her former asset’s murder. The mystery leads her deep into the heart of Bukilov, where she will discover that history more often than not is a series of lies fabricated by the victors – and that hints of the sacred still live under the depths of the city.

I waffled a bit before requesting this book on Library Thing – science fiction/fantasy stories with strong religious elements are a real hit-or-miss for me – but I knew of Robert Jackson Bennett from his previous book, American Elsewhere, which I enjoyed immensely. As it turns out, City of Stairs? Even better!

Let’s start with the world-building, which is stunning in its breadth and complexity. Some early reviewers noted that the first half of the book is heavy on exposition. While this is certainly true, I can’t say that I minded or was bored for even a second. The history of Saypur and the Continent – each the oppressed and oppressor at varying points throughout time – is as fascinating as it is detailed. I could have read excerpts from Efrem’s journals and published papers for hours.

And oh, the characters: so complicated and conflicted and not always altogether likable! The cast is stunningly diverse; Shara, with her short stature and brown skin, is characteristic of Saypuris, while the light-skinned, red-haired Volka looks classically Continental. (Although, as Shara points out to a racist Continental, their people historically looked quite similar. It was only after the Divinities altered the climate of the Continent that the Continentals developed a fairer complexion.) While the story takes place on the Continent, many of the protagonists are Saypuri, leading to a racially diverse cast.

Likewise, Bennett tackles issue of sexuality and homophobia in Volka, who has spent the last two decades struggling with his sexuality. In his home city of Bukilov, Kolkan’s influence can still be felt: in the reigning puritanical attitudes towards sex, including virulent homophobia; in its strict, sexist gender roles; in its dislike of all that is deemed excessively pleasurable. (The Edicts of Kolkan includes 378 pounds of text on dancing alone.) There’s a reason why, of all the Divinities, Kolkan was known as THE JUDGE. (He’s very Old Testament that way.)

Bennett’s take on religion is refreshing and insightful as well. As Shara and Efrem make/reveal their discoveries about the symbiotic relationship between the Divinities and the Continentals, they come to realize that the gods were as beholden to their followers as humans were to the Divine. Kolkan punished his flock in no small part because they desired his punishment.

Ostensibly a work of fantasy, City of Stairs is really an eclectic beast: there’s lots of magic here, peppered with science fiction (“reality static”), philosophy, and just a touch of steampunk (mysterious sky ships). Don’t let the length deter you; the nearly 500 pages flew right by.

Five out of five stars. City of Stairs is definitely one of my favorite 2014 releases.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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