Saturday, August 31, 2019

Review: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
Published: Jo Fletcher Books/Broadway Books, 2014
Series: Book 1 of the Divine Cities
Awards Nominated: Holdstock, World Fantasy, and Locus Fantasy Awards

The Book:

“The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions — until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world's new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself — first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it — stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.
Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov's oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country's most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem — and that Bulikov's cruel reign may not yet be over.”
I’d heard a lot of positive things about this series, so I finally decided to check it out.  I don’t think I’d ever read anything by Robert Jackson Bennett before. This review is going to be followed by one for City of Blades, because I read them back-to-back. I should also mention that this book was provided to me by Net Galley for Hugo considerations in 2018. I did read it for that purpose, though my review is considerably delayed.
My Thoughts:
Part of the reason I held off on reading this for several years, despite hearing positive things about it, is that it appeared to be an epic fantasy revolving around a murder mystery.  I have a low tolerance for murder mysteries, and my interest in epic fantasy had been flagging. Luckily, this book was unusual in both of these respects. The story does start off with a murder investigation, but the death is more of an inciting incident than the central focus of the story.  The world is also really creative, and has more technology than I would usually expect in the sub-genre. The sense of place for Bulikov is very strong, and I enjoyed the way the unreliable, frightening effects of the divine influenced the story. I also appreciated the complicated cultural tension between Saypur and the continent.  The way the world was described made the book feel very immersive to me, so I was very quick to be drawn into the story.
This is a plot-driven book, rather than character-driven, but several of the characters were quite memorable.  I like reading about teamwork, so I was a big fan of the strong non-romantic relationship between Shara and Sigrud.  They complemented each other well and made for a nearly unstoppable team. There was a little too much of an emphasis on quirks in their characterization for me (e.g. Shara constantly drinks tea and doesn’t eat), but that’s a minor complaint.  It was really easy for me to latch onto Shara’s perspective let myself be swept away by the story. Sometimes coincidences she encountered seemed a little convenient, but I was always eager to see the next new thing. This was a smooth read that felt far shorter than its 400+ pages. I was ready to read the next book of the series immediately!
My Rating: 4.5/5
City of Stairs is a highly entertaining fantasy story that kicks off with a murder mystery and ends up with much more miraculous problems.  I especially liked the world-building and the immersive atmosphere of the setting. The non-romantic partnership of the main characters, Shara and Sigrud, was also a strong draw for me.  They were both memorable characters in their own right, but together they made for a compelling team. There was a lot going on throughout the book, but everything came together in a satisfying way at the end.  I’m certainly going to be reading more work by Bennett, and I’ll be reviewing City of Blades next on my blog!  

No comments:

Post a Comment