City of Stairs

Robert Jackson Bennett
City of Stairs Cover

City of Stairs


Definitely one of the best epic fantasy releases of the year. Equal parts absorbing, mysterious, fantastical, and intense. But overall one of the richest novels of the year so far.

It all starts when Efrem Pangyui, celebrated Saypuri historian is found murdered, presumably for delving into the forbidden history of Bulikov, history illegal for the natives themselves to learn. Into the resulting turmoil enters Ministry of Foreign Affairs agent Shara Thivani, ostensibly a lowly cultural ambassador to represent the interests of Saypuri on the Continent. As she begins to delve into the mystery of Pangyui's death, the trail leads her from modern day Bulikov deep into the shadows of the past, a time when Gods walked the land and miracles were a matter of course and her very people were under the yoke of the Continentals.

This book is everything I love about fantasy packed into one city.

Characters that are absorbing to read about. Complex political, social and economic issues that make the world indelibly real. A rich, magical history. A deep sense of mystery that kept me interested in what's going on. An atmospheric, completely immersive style of narration that dragged me under and kept me there. But most of all, fantastical elements as epic as they come. One of my favourite scenes in the entire book reads like a moment straight out of Beowulf. All seamlessly held together by tight, gripping writing that very simply left me wanting more.

I can't recall a book I've read before where I found myself absorbed in the actions of the entire cast of characters. There's always that one person I'll just sort of gloss over when I'm reading, or patiently wait through their scenes to get to others more interesting, or even outright hate, but that's not the case with City of Stairs. Everyone is an individual unto themselves, from the soldier turned politician Mulaghesh who just wants a quiet posting somewhere sunny to the idealist, patriotic Vohannes Votrov, who's cockiness and audacious behaviour makes him as charming a read as he is a piteous one.

Immersion is downright impossible to avoid. Richly atmospheric, deep in history, culture and politics, Bulikov quite simply comes alive in your mind. From the pseudo-Russian conquered Continentals to the faux-Far Eastern Saypuri conquerors, with a rich magical history that permeates every level of this story, from the politics to the very fabric of reality, Bennett pretty much throws you into the water with concrete shoes on. You're going under, you're staying there, and you're going to love every minute of it.

The Divinites, their relationship with the Continentals and the magic they worked that still affects the world long after their fall from grace is absolutely captivating to learn about. Bennett harnesses some of the most essential facts at the basis of any religion, andtheology in general, and applies it to his world in one of the most realistic portrayals I've ever read in a novel. Combined with this, he seamlessly presents a take on conflicting theologies that fits the world so neatly and realistically it would be hard to imagine it any other way. I've heard this book compared to Kameron Hurley's The Mirror Empire, and I definitely see why folks are inclined to that.

The mystery of the story is well handled. As Shara delves deeper into the death of the historian and uncovers some of the deepest buried secrets and forgotten truths of not only the Continent but Saypuri, the plot slowly but steadily progresses from a small scale to a tale of much more epic proportions. The best part of it is that it never feels like the murder is just a plot device to give your standard epic conflict a starting point; rather, it feels like one clue or event leads to another in a complex braid that eventually coalesces into something grand.

But most of all, City of Stairs was a fun read. I found myself fascinated by the various Divine objects left behind by the gods, amused by the ease with which Sigrud does his job, interested in the dynamic between Shara and Vohannes, and flat out enjoying myself when the crap starts flying from every direction and Sigrud gets to do what he does best. Coupled with some carefully laid revelations that threw me for enough twists to make the book a roller coaster ride, there's no other realistic way to describe the book.

All in all, City of Stairs was one of the most fun epic fantasies I've read in recent months. With incredible depth, absorbing characters and an intriguing story that leaves you so hooked the book flows by and you just can't help reading more and more, it's definitely going to be one of the best new fantasy releases of the year. Very recommended.

ARC provided via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.