City of Stairs

If you haven’t read Robert Jackson Bennett before, know that his books The Troupe and American Elsewhere are amazing. It’s on the strength of those two works alone that Bennett has become one of my “instant read” authors. He’s always doing something fresh even though the books wear the skin of stories already told. For example The Troupe, which focuses on a magical vaudeville tradition can be easily compared to The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I mention this because they were both out around the same time. While magic and travelling performers are simply decor, the stories are vastly different.

The point I’m trying to make is that Robert Jackson Bennett has the gift of squeezing into already occupied spaces and expanding them with his own twists and depth. City of Stairs continues this trend of brilliance by cutting in line so smoothly between American Gods and Perdido Street Station, that you’d have a hard time thinking it wasn’t published first.

Obviously I’m jumping the gun with praise so maybe I should dial it back and tell you I received a copy from the publisher for review. Alright. Phew. Yes, it’s phenomenal.

So what exactly is the book about? Well… a lot of things. In the simplest terms it’s about a fallen city, a detective, and religion. We’ve all read books where cities are featured as character so let’s start there.

The city of Bulikov used to be the home of the gods, where literal deities ruled. A place where miracles flowed and…I don’t want to ruin the flavor by explaining the full backstory so long story short, the gods are dead.

Presently with no more gods the continent has been plunged into an everlasting depression, and a formerly enslaved colony called Saypur now stands as the dominant world authority. With the current political climate it’s clear the the dust of the old world hasn’t quite settled. Saypur has enacted laws that limit the possession and use of objects formerly endowed with power by gods. While the city is heavily policed to squash even the smallest mote of religious fervor, there’s a distinct feeling that old traditions are still observed behind the scenes.

Investigator Shara Thivani is sent to the city of Bulikov after a noted historian is murdered. Shara has a deep history, with the history, of this place and uses old “magics” to find the truth behind events. Superiors turn a blind eye to Shara’s use of the occult, making an interesting statement about getting the job done by any means.

I’m not particular to the detective role in fiction but I like Shara Thivani a lot. She possesses all of the inquisitive brains needed to solve a case without falling into the trap of the typical noirish-nihilist gumshoe alcoholic. Parts of her past do play a role in some events, and the most pleasurable part of City of Stairs is watching her work through the mystery. Shara is middle aged and in interviews the author stated that if she was from our world she’d be described as southeast-asian. That a skilled, intelligent, well rounded character doesn’t have to be a young, white guy to stand toe to toe with Sherlock Holmes, is most certainly the point.

There’s also the burly Sigrud, who acts as muscleman and bodyguard to Shara. He’s interesting on his own but as he’s been mentioned constantly in the promotion of this book he may be a little over-hyped. Though for a trench-coat wearing viking-type warrior who rarely speaks he’s pretty awesome.

It’s easy for books to become weighed down by a large number of characters, but City of Stairs keeps the roster short. This focus on only a few people works because it allows a more intimate story arc. Everyone, and I mean everyone, in City of Stairs is moody, cold, and alone, just like Bulikov. Let’s go back to that for a moment.

Bulikov is not a vibrant, living place. It’s devoid, missing of it’s former glory. As populous as the city is, its residents are rarely seen, which lends the story a bleak emptiness. The truth is always distant and out of sight which is precisely what a mystery needs to be. It kept my interest, and made me pay attention to clues as they were unearthed.

There are places where the obvious criticism of religion is front and center. People of all sorts cling to, reject, cherish or ignore every manner of belief. Multicultural viewpoints showcase both the merits of faith and pitfalls extreme devotion. If I have one complaint is that some of the allegory is a little too obvious. Not that an author shouldn’t be blatant but with how moody and somber the overall picture is I feel it’s a message that could have been buried a little bit deeper. Still, there’s an interesting statement to be found. Religion influences people, people influence religion. In any case it’s critical of religion, but not mean spirited.

So yes, definitely check out City of Stairs and anything else Robert Jackson Bennett is privileged to have published. He’s a solid author with great ideas and a sequel, City of Blades, was published in January.

*Spoilers* It’s even better than City of Stairs.