City of Stairs – Robert Jackson Bennett – Book Review (spoilers)

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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.

I received a copy of City of Stairs from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

WARNING: I ACCIDENTALLY INCLUDED SOME MILD SPOILERS IN HERE. NOTHING MAJOR, AND NOTHING DETAILED, BUT I KIND OF COULDN’T HELP IT BECAUSE I WANTED TO TALK ABOUT IT. SORRY. PROCEED WITH CAUTION

When Efrem Pangui, a Saypuri historian, is found murdered in his Bulkovian office on the Continent, Shara makes her way into the city to find out why and seek out his killer. Of course that isn’t all she finds. Instead she discovers active working miracles, not-as-dead-as-expected divinities, information about her own ancestry, and so much more.

City of Stairs is set in Bulikov: one of the cities on the Continent, a nation once held up by active and present Gods, a ‘chosen’ nation that once enslaved the people of Saypur. When the Gods disappeared, Saypur held a technological advantage over the Continent, which had depended on its Divinities for everything. The tables turned and Saypur held all of the power, the money, and outlawed any acknowledgement of the Continent’s history, the Divine, on its soil. Bennett sets all of this up, with context that makes you feel it. which makes it matter. With characters who appear so real that their history is real too.

The characters of City of Stairs are difficult to forget. A few days after finishing the novel, I am still thinking about them. Shara, Mulagesh, Vohannes, Vinya, and Sigrud. SIGRUD! I loathe a perfect, flawless character, and thankfully – City of Stairs doesn’t even have one

If I could, I’d visit Bulikov right now. Robert Jackson Bennett’s world-building is second to none, the best I have read all year, and I can honestly say that it was so thorough and detailed that I had no problem suspending my disbelief. I found it difficult to put this book down and come back to reality – and that’s exactly what I want from a book. An escape. Even if it is to a secondary world that is plagued with much more murder, drama, and politics than my day to day life. My heart pounded, I felt stressed, I was nearly ripping my hair out at times. But at least it’s not boring.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when starting City of Stairs. I hadn’t read anything about it, nor other reviews, as I wanted to make up my own mind about it. The concept and cover struck me as YA, but I can honestly say I wouldn’t give this to any teenage reader (not that YA is specifically for teenagers, of course). It is a novel written for adults. Not just because of the swearing, the killing off of romantic interests (thank gods that this novel wasn’t centred on a romantic entanglement), or the pretty descriptive and gory scenes. It’s complicated at times, it needs to be read slowly and digested properly, no matter how much you want to speed ahead and find out what happens next. It’s heavy, and it’s worth it, it doesn’t feel like a slog.

One of the things I loved so much about City of Stairs, though there are many, has to be its unapologetic political commentary. Despite being set in a completely different world, it is an allegorical criticism of racism, homophobia, unequal power structures, colonialism, and the blind following of religion. It is a novel written by a man, with a strong female main character that I didn’t find incredibly unrealistic – and that’s an achievement. This is a novel I’d be happy to champion.

I’m not going to try and fit City of Stairs into a definitive genre, least of all because I’d find it terribly hard, mostly because I feel as though if it is defined as something specific – a lot of readers who stay within one genre or another, or avoid certain genres, would miss out on this incredible book. It doesn’t need a genre. It has fantasy elements, science fiction elements, mystery elements, and more. Trying to slot it in some pigeon hole would be reckless and unnecessary. If it were not completely fictional, I’d put this on a shelf with historical fiction – because the history of the world Bennett has created is just so comprehensive.

More people need to be reading City of Stairs, more people need to be talking about Robert Jackson Bennett (and saying nice things, hopefully), and more people need to be paying attention to the goings-on in Bulikov, because that shit is important, folks!

This is honestly the best book I’ve read so far this year, definitely my favourite of 2014… but there are still three months to go. Let’s see if it can hold out (it probably can). Its reviews on Goodreads are tellingly positive. I’ll be keeping an eye out for Bennett’s previous publications, and the sequel, oh god the sequel. This is the book I’ll be buying in bulk to give to friends for Christmas but shh, don’t tell them. They don’t read my blog.

My personal rating: 5/5. Amazon average: 4.5/5. Goodreads average: 4.39/5.

Buy from Amazon / Hive / Your Local Indie Book Store ♥ It’s not out in the UK until October 2nd it seems, but it’ll be published by Quercus and you’ll be able to buy it in Hardback then.

Pages: 464

Publishers: Broadway Books / Quercus

Publication Date: September 9th 2014

Follow the author on Twitter: @robertjbennett

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