Review: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs

Robert Jackson Bennett’s magnificent “City of Stairs” is a contender for best sci-fi/fantasy novel of 2014.

Robert Jackson Bennett

★★★★★

Crown Publishing, 2014.

And here we have a strong contender for my favorite read of 2014.

Blending espionage, magic, theological discussion and a Mieville-esque setting, the award-winning horror author has delivered a near perfect read — a genre-bending page-turner that manages to meld epic fantasy into a Cold War tale.

This is one incredibly original novel.

City of Stairs takes place in Bulikov, a crumbling city that was once the jewel of the Continental Empire, the beautiful seat of power for the Divinities, a pantheon of gods who walked among men, performing wonders and miracles. The Slavic Continentals ruled over the Eastern-influenced island folk of Saypur for centuries, until 80 years earlier, when the Saypuri rose up under the aegis of the mysterious Kaj, who slew the Divinities and allowed the Saypuri to conquer the Continent.

Since then the wondrous city has crumbled, plagues have decimated the Continent, the old religions have been outlawed and the signs and wonders the Divinities left behind have been packed away in a hidden warehouse.

Into this oppressive setting, which immediately conjured images of post-war Berlin to me, comes Shara, a young ambassador sent to investigate the murder of Efrem Pangyui, a Saypuri researcher who was studying the forbidden religions. In truth Shara is a spy and an assassin, who is also a student of the lost Continental religions. And she is accompanied by Sigurd, a hulking Northern bodyguard with his own secrets.

Of course intrigue follows intrigue, with mysterious assassins striking against a prominent continental leader, coincidentally a former lover of Shara’s. Other Bulikov city leaders are plotting against each other, seeking to throw off the yoke of the Saypuri and restore the city to its former glory. Spies in automobiles are tailed, mysterious briefcases exchange hands in smoke-filled rooms, and, yes, Shara wears a trench coat.

Did I mention this was a fantasy?

Because that is the glory of City of Stairs. This isn’t steampunk, where modern technology is replaced by pneumonic ancillaries, or urban fantasy, where vampires and werewolves roam suburban America. Bennett takes us somewhere else — Bulikov is a city of gods and wonders that has advanced into the 20th Century, albeit with much pain and suffering. The Le Carre-esque story hides magic and miracles, sea monsters and lost Gods that might not be as dead as was previously believed.

And Bulikov is possibly Bennett’s best character in the novel. Like China Mieville’s best work, the holy city is as much a character as it is a setting. Once the beautiful seat of power for the Divinities, the city reached to the skies, with gleaming white walls, towering staircases and a magnificent temple at its heart. But after Kaj’s conquest the city crumbled in an instant known as “the Blink” when all the magic of the Divinities vanished. Filled with mystery and harboring its own secrets, Bulikov stands trapped in a stasis between a memory of its former glory and the wreckage it has become.

And through the layers of intrigue, Cold War politics and societal upheaval, Bennett also asks questions on the purpose of religion as well. The Continentals are struggling to find meaning in their lives without religion, while the Saypuri are attempting to supplant the Continental religion with bureaucracy. In this environment Bennett asks whether Gods shape man, or if man bend God to his will. Pangui explores this conundrum in the diaries he left behind for Shara: 

The pattern is undeniable: the Continentals made their decisions, formed their attitudes … & the Divinities followed, making them official.

Who was leading whom? Is this evidence of some kind of unconscious vote, which the Divinities then enacted?

I wonder, sometimes, if the Continentals were like schools of fish, & the slightest flick of one fish caused dozens of others to follow suit, until the entire shimmering cloud had changed course.

And were the Divinities the sum of this cloud? An embodiment, perhaps, of a national subconscious? Or were they empowered by the thoughts & praises by millions of people, yet also yoked to every one of those thoughts—giant, terrible puppets forced to dance by the strings of millions of puppeteers?

This knowledge, I think, is incredibly dangerous. The Continentals derive so much pride & so much power from having Divine approval. … But were they merely hearing the echoes of their own voices, magnified through strange caverns & tunnels? When they spoke to the Divinities, were they speaking to giant reflections of themselves?

And if I am right, then it means that the Continentals were never ordered to invade Saypur, never ordered to enslave us, never ordered to force their brutal regime onto the known world: the gods merely enforced it, because the Continentals wished it.

Everything we know is a lie.

Where did the gods come from? What were they?

Is judgement meted out because that is the Divine purpose, or is it because that is what man craves? And how do you strike a balance between Atheism and extremism in such an environment?

An amazing book.

—Michael Senft

Buy City of Stairs

About Michael Senft

I am a freelance writer and critic from Phoenix Arizona. I spent 10 years covering music, the arts and pop culture for the “Arizona Republic” before life circumstances took me away from newspaper. But I never lost my joy at writing. Or reading.
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