City of Stairs
Robert Jackson Bennett
Rating: 5+ Stars
‘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…’
Ok, let’s get the fact that this book is one of the best books I’ve ever read out of the way early on (I had a very good reading holiday). This post is pretty much going to be an explanation of why you need to go and read this book. NOW.
I have nothing to complain about, zilch, nada, nein. It is utterly brilliant and a complete pleasure to read. I stumbled upon it in the general fiction area of Waterstones – though I’m not quite sure that was the right place, when I went back to buy my own copy it had been moved to Fantasy. No one quite knows what genre to file it under, it was on a new reads stand in the library with no genre label – a very telling indication. Goodness knows, I’ve read the book and I don’t know where to place it (other than firmly and joyously in fantasy and mystery/thriller and speculative fiction and – oh I give up) and quite frankly I don’t care. The wonder of this book is that it happily stampedes across genre lines, character stereotypes and reader expectations. If publishers put out more books like this, stories that can’t be neatly packaged up and pigeonholed, then the world would be a better – and richer – place.
So, ten of the many reasons why this is one of my favourite books of all time:
- Shara – My love for Shara knows no bounds. She doesn’t look like an intelligence operative. She’s got a historian’s soul with a spy’s brain and the slightly dented heart of an idealist who’s been let down too many times. She’s complicated, she’s got a richly detailed past that we only get snapshots of and her motives are far from clear cut, but I swear you will root for her from the minute she appears until the very last page. Also she has a frankly unhealthy tea obsession.
- Sigrud – Another brilliant character. Shara’s ‘secretary’ – oh lord even I can’t say that without laughing, his entrance onto the scene is truly something to behold. He’s also got a great backstory that we’re steadily drip fed until we get the whole story in the most unexpected setting. A wonderful, wonderful character who respects Shara completely. Utterly insane but in a way that’s just brilliant and – for Shara – very useful.
- Vo – Shara’s former lover with whom she continues to have a very complicated relationship. Vo has a complex family background and very liberal views in a city that’s still steeped in traditions founded on belief systems that are decades dead. Ex’s of main characters can often end up being something of an annoying cardboard cut out – either hated or idealised to an extreme. Vo is neither, he’s fallible and funny and grand. He’s sympathetically written and a character that stands very firmly on his own two feet.
- General Turyin Mulaghesh – In many political intrigue novels there’s generally the local top military bod who is a respected veteran and provides much needed back-up. You know who I mean? Not here. Here we have a 50-odd year old female general who smokes, keeps in shape and is generally brilliantly helpful in a grumpy, reluctant way that is largely influenced by possible retirement to a tropical island. Genius.
- World-building – a godless world where Saypur – the former slave colony – achieved independence by physically killing the Continent’s ‘Gods’. Bulikov is a city that was irrevocably effected by this, full of staircases that lead to nowhere and buildings that fold into other buildings streets away. A city where the effects of colonialization – erasure, cultural blending – are physically visible,
- Intrigue – we start with a murder which facilitates Shara and Sigrud’s appearance and then it all spirals from there. The stakes snowball very quickly and the pages fly by, but somehow it’s all utterly plausible within the confines of Shara’s world. The plot expands in all directions yet manages to keep us hurtling onwards chapter by chapter until a brilliant conclusion.
- Thought-provoking – within its pages City of Stairs investigates so many topics: colonialism, cultural memory, history, documentation, political scheming, repression, religion, gender, sexuality, race, forgiveness and betrayal amongst so much more. This novel is ridiculously quotable. I’m currently dipping in and out of it again between my other reading and picking out bits I love. I have a feeling it’s going to be a very long list.
- Form – In many ways this is a composite novel. The extracts at the end of each chapter from earlier texts, snippets from life under the Gods, words from the gods themselves and their believers all serve to make a world that is so richly detailed you simply fall into it.
- Diversity – Buliov appears to be loosely based on Russia and Saypur on India. In an inverted world the slaves have overthrown their masters and are now the ‘occupiers’. Shara and many of the other characters are POC, there are characters with varying sexual identities, different levels of disability, differing belief systems…Just marvellous. From early chapters of the next in the series I’m hugely looking forward to his next narrator who definitely continues the tradition.
- Shara’s cooking – this will make very little sense until you get far enough in the novel but that entire sequence was gold. Also Sigrud’s reaction. Very sharp knives and an onion. Classic.
I’ll leave it there, although I could quite easily just keep going. I’ve rarely enjoyed a book this much and I’m so glad to have found another new author (further back catalogue investigations will ensue).