City of Stairs is a glorious, mind-bending mash-up; part second-world fantasy, part political thriller and part murder mystery. Shara Thivani and her “secretary” Sigrud are my two new favorite action heroes.
Robert Jackson Bennett once again, has taken a conventional sub-genre and made it original, creating an experience that reads like an actual sociological thriller set in another, magical world.
Shara Thivani is a junior ambassador from the Saypuri islands – at least, that is her cover. She comes to Bulikov, the City of Stairs, on the Continent, to investigate the murder of Saypuri citizen and her friend, Professor Pangyui, who was found beaten to death in his office in the Bulikov University.
Relations between the Continentals and the Saypuri are… well, tense. For millennia, the Continentals, aided by mysterious entities called Divinities, held a massive empire of conquest. They enslaved the Saypuri people. Then, sixty years ago, a Saypuri called the Kaj invented a mystical weapon that killed Divinities. In one battle the tables were turned, faster even than the Saypuris expected. Because each Divinity had built (or perhaps, in one case, grown) the city they were attached to, when the Divinities died their cities died or changed, catastrophically. Bulikov is a tattered remnant, a patchwork of a great city and a shattered slum. In some places the air seems to shimmer with magic (although, with all the Divinities gone, there should not be any magic), and buildings sprout out of the sides of other buildings, or have sunk halfway into the earth. The Saypuri are now trying to rebuild the starving, impoverished, resentful country they conquered.
Shara is smart, but she really doesn’t know what she is in for. She is prepared to face resentment and hostility, and prepared to face complacent, incompetent Saypuri bureaucrats, one of whom she sends packing in the first 27 pages:
“I will hazard a guess Mr. Troonyi, and say that the reason the City Fathers of Bulikov do not listen to you and do not respect you, and the reason your career has not been upwardly mobile for the past five years, is that you are willing to hang a painting on your office wall that must insult and incense the very people you were sent here to work with! Sigrud!” The giant man stands. “Since the maintenance staff responds to slowly to voices other than CD Troonyi’s, please remove that painting and break it over your knee. And Troonyi – please sit down. We need to discuss the conditions of your retirement.”
What she does not expect is that one of her main Bulikovan contacts will be a man she met, and loved, in university. Vohannes Votrov, blue-blooded scion of Bulikov, is also his family’s black sheep. In spite of public bad behavior and a tendency toward irreverence, Vo seems to be on his way to becoming a leading light in the city, and he wants to work with the Saypuri. As soon as Shara and Vohannes reconnect, they are in danger, and even the amazing Sigrud may not be able to save them.
Shara has her own family problems to worry about, specifically her powerful Aunt Vinya back in Saypuri. It is immediately clear that Vinya does not want Shara to solve the mystery of the scholar’s death. Vinya has the ability to cut Shara’s support network out from under her, and we never doubt that she will do it.
The first third of the book really does read like a political thriller with mysticism. Gradually that changes. With the Divinities gone, none of the hundreds of magical artifacts that the Saypuri have collected from the cities should work… but somehow, some of them still do. While Shara focuses on money trails and puzzles about weaving supplies and purchases of metal, she is confronted by things that should not still be possible in the city, and yet they are. Shara is open-minded enough to accept this possibility, which puts her at odds with the other Saypuri bureaucrats.
From the discovery of the “warehouse” where artifacts are hidden from the people of Bulikov, to Sigrud’s mano-a-mano duel with Urav, a supernatural river-monster, to a startling steampunkish air battle, City of Stairs shifts and twists, providing entertainment and still managing to be thought-provoking. The Bulikovans were arrogant and cruel during their years of empire, but was the Saypuri choice to cut them completely off from their culture the right one? Shara thinks not, even while she sees the danger of looking back to the old ways.
Shara, with her sword-sharp intellect, her temper, her caffeine addiction and her doomed love of history, is a multi-faceted character. Vohannes uses wit and flamboyance to mask the heartbreak of being the rejected son, and the Saypuri General Mulaghesh watches it all with a keen and cynical eye. Sigrud, at first, seems like a type, but there is more to him than an eye-patch and strength; there is pain and loneliness, a gleeful bloodthirstiness, and honor.
“No matter what happens to either of us,” says Sigrud, “you have always been a very good friend to me, Shara Komayd. I have known very few good people. But I think that you are one of them.”
“Even if sometimes I almost got you killed?”
“Being killed… Pah.” His one eye glitters in the gaslight. “What is that to good friends?”
A word of warning; City of Stairs is written completely in the present tense. If you are one of those people with an allergy to present tense, I’m not going to try to persuade you to overcome it to read this book. I’m just going to feel sorry for you because you’re missing out.
Bennett seems to be able to take on any facet of speculative fiction and make it work. City of Stairs is another example of a strange, intriguing, multi-layered story that held my interest on every single page.
City of Stairs is part murder mystery, part political thriller, and part crazy-amazing fantasy. In this world, the Saypuris, who have been oppressed and treated as slaves and subhuman creatures for centuries, have finally risen up to overthrow and then oppress the Continent, a polytheistic society with access to magic. As part of the new regime, the Saypuris have scrubbed the Continental cities, historical records, art, and public speech of any reference to the gods, who were supposedly defeated and killed in the Saypuri uprising.
Into this inheritance steps Shara, a diplomat-slash-spy from Saypur who has come to Bulikov, the holiest city of the Continent, to investigate a recent murder. Shara suspects that the Continental gods may not all be dead. She and her bad-ass Viking-pirate-prince “secretary” (he’s actually her bodyguard) poke their noses into issues that both the reigning Saypur government and the underground Continental rebels would prefer remains hidden.
Bennett doesn’t let up; his book is action- and revelation-packed, and left me all hair-blown-back-in-the-wind-
This book was an impressive mix of genres and themes. I loved the murder investigation, political scheming, and competing divinities in a fantasy about the city of Bulakov in the conquered land of the Continent, its Saypuri occupiers, the tough-as-nails investigator Shara, her Nordic bodyguard Sigurd, the various administrators of Bulikov, and the incredibly-detailed and exotic world-building that evoked China Mieville‘s The City and The City with its impoverished Eastern European Soviet-bloc political background, and much more fantastical latter half filled with not-so-dead divinities, iron flying ships, powerful magic, and bizarre sea monsters.
In terms of tone, the story reminded me of N.K. Jemisin‘s BROKEN EARTH trilogy, with its strong female characters, complex and exotic societies, dark emotional undercurrents, and exploration of dominance and submission, the weight of history that divides peoples, all the prejudices that come with competing religions, and some very unique magic systems as well. All in all, it’s a unique and enticing world and well worth continuing to the next two books in the series, City of Blades and City of Miracles. The audiobooks are all narrated with great skill by Alma Cuervo — she captures the tone and characters of the series perfectly.