Review: City Of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City Of Stairs

Genre: Fantasy | This edition: Hardcover (ARC) | Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books | Publication date: 2nd October 2014 | My rating: 5/5

You’ve got to be careful when you’re chasing a murderer through Bulikov, for the world is not as it should be in that city. When the gods were destroyed and all worship of them banned by the Polis, reality folded; now stairs lead to nowhere, alleyways have become portals to the past, and criminals disappear into thin air.

The murder of Dr Efrem Pangyui, the Polis diplomat researching the Continent’s past, has begun something and now whispers of an uprising flutter out from invisible corners. Only one woman may be willing to pursue the truth – but it is likely to cost her everything.

Before I picked up this book, Robert Jackson Bennett was an author I had heard a lot of good things about, and been endlessly amused by on Twitter, but his work had remained unexplored – thanks mostly to an ever-growing TBR. But, in a case of social media marketing going right, City Of Stairs was fast becoming an unavoidable curiosity – and I’ll forever be grateful that I didn’t avoid it.

This, folks, is one of the best fantasy books of the year.

I’m honestly not sure I have anything to criticise, or even nitpick over. From start to finish, this is tightly written, expertly plotted, marvellously paced and just plain fun to read. Let’s start with the worldbuilding.

The story takes place in Bulikov, famous for being the former home of gods. Or the home of former gods… That particular detail is probably one worth debating, and leads into the deepest of the story’s deep intrigues. In any case, it’s a weird, curious, very downtrodden place in the aftermath of the death of said gods. Their mark is still left on the city, where certain areas seem to defy the laws of normal physics – to put it mildly. The world that Bennett creates feels both secondary-fantastic, and somehow contemporary at the same time. It’s a clever mix of both, deftly handled and resulting in one of the most interesting fantasy worlds I’ve ever read about, whether in terms of Bulikov’s warped layout or its political relationships. Both have their place and equal importance to the plot, and is one layer of many within this book that makes it impressive.

And the characters. Balanced against the apparently random chaos of her surroundings, not to mention the danger and secrecy in which she’s up to her eyes, is Shara Thivani – or, as she would prefer not to be known, Shara Komayd. As an operative of the Saipuri government, she’s in Bulikov on very unofficial business, to investigate the murder of someone she was close to. She’s also related to the man who, years before, was made notorious for managing to kill the city’s gods. Her investigation quickly goes off the rails, and we end up following Shara through her efforts to make sense of many things that, quite inevitably, don’t make much sense at all. Shara is sharp, remarkably clever, and prides herself on the skills she’s learned in her line of work. The fact that none of that seems to be working for her the way it should quickly starts to unravel her calm, and in a city halfway steeped in madness, a toll is naturally soon taken upon her.

And, as if Shara’s trials and her fascinating, often darkly amusing personality wasn’t enough, there’s her “secretary”, Sigrud. I freaking loved Sigrud. To all appearances, he’s nothing but a rugged, wild, intimidating barbarian, whose purpose would seem to be a secret to no one, no matter what job description Shara applies to him. Then again, he wouldn’t be nearly so interesting if ‘thug’ was the only word that applied to Sigrud. He knows what he’s good at, and he does it so marvellously well – and, in a nice little flip side to Shara’s quickly unraveling composure, he never bats an eye at having to do any of it. Even when he’s battling godlike monsters on a frozen river wearing nothing but his boots.

I won’t go into detail about that scene, but trust me. It’s pretty damned unforgettable.

There just isn’t going to be enough room in this review for all of the awesome things I want to say – but given that much of it would involve posting spoilers, that’s probably for the best. I don’t know if there’s anyone out there in the SFF community who hasn’t read this yet, but a) it’s best to assume so, and b) anyone who hasn’t at least heard of it is probably dead. There is so much intrigue, peril, character study and epicness of worldbuilding that it would probably have been so easy to make a complete mess of it. Thankfully, Robert Jackson Bennett is a writer who’s more than up to the job of turning everything in this melting pot into a book that’s both a thrill-a-minute fantasy story, and a taste of a world rife with deeply fascinating cultures and political systems. It will satisfy the thinky-brain types and delight the adventure-seekers in equal measure. And, as if that wasn’t enough, it will tug on any and all heartstrings with just as much unwavering skill.

It takes a special kind of book to leave me hugging it afterward. This was one.

To the best of my knowledge this is a standalone book, and the ending certainly ties everything together as well as the various elements were unwound to begin with, but honestly? I would love to have more – and you can bet that this will be on any award ballots I can get my hands on next year.

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