& Review: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett. Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Publisher: Broadway Books

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett. Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Publisher: Broadway Books

The Book Itself: Ooooh, scary guy in a gray roooobbbbe…

My Review: 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.

One sign of a great book is one that makes you stay up late into the night, wanting to see the next intense thing that happens next. City of Stairs is exactly that kind of book.

I’ve actually avoided this book for a while. Reading the back of the book made my eyes glaze over. It was wordy, complex for even a blurb. And there were already obvious these fictional political undertones to the whole thing (I’m not a huge fan of aggressive political writings). I passed on it a couple of times.

But finally I saw it in paperback and decided to give it a go. And I’m glad I did! (My coworker saw me reading it once during break and told me how good it was – where was she when I passed it up the first time!) Now, it is a little politic heavy. I’d compare it to Wicked by Gregory McGuire if I remembered more of that book. As it is, I read that one when I was in middle school, unable to truly grasp the politics that embedded every scene. I remember really not liking it because it was so political – it just felt like it was all fictional politics and no action-driven story. City of Stairs features a main character in politics. Her whole life is centered on that. So, we as readers are focused on that. She gets a crappy assignment? She gets demoted? Promoted? She attends a party where great political figures lobby for allies? We hear about it. In detail.

This shapes up towards the end of the book, where Sigrud, the muscle in this story, kicks some monster ass. He is the antidote to the scenes where characters are rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful to get ahead politically.

Really, this story happens because of Sigrud. He takes care of all threats. If Sigrud weren’t there, out protagonist would have died five times over. Good thing she’s a good politician, and rescued this big, scary guy from a prison once. Good move.

I’m getting sassy, but really, Sigrud’s backstory and his relationship with Shara is a good one. I like them together. And Shara isn’t totally useless. She knows a little magic (known in this fictional world as “miracles”), she’s bookish and curious about the world around her which makes for some excellent worldbuilding. This world is very tightly fleshed out. I can only hope there are more books set in Bulikov. Sigrud needs to do some more stuff! At the end, Shara sets off to tick some more people off, and we need to see it happen! More books, please!

The names can be cumbersome. It’s a book where you’re plopped in the middle of a very complex, magical, fictional world and expected to just figure it out. It takes a little work to get into it. But once you are, you’re in it for good. You root for Sigrud, you get frustrated with the corners Shara gets backed into, you wish you could see the magical city of Bulikov back in its glory days for yourself. It’s immersive and complex and makes you want more: all marks of a great sci-fi/fantasy novel.

My Grade: B+


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