CITY OF STAIRS – Robert Jackson Bennett (2014)

20174424This book is okay, but it’s not that original as some claim it is, and it lacks overall depth. The basic premise of an imperialistic continent conquered by its slaves after its gods were killed is quite original, sure, but the details are all more or less standard. Take the fact that lots of the story’s action relies heavily on Sigrud, a typical nearly invincible brute of the silent type. And yes, he kills with his bare hands too. Or take the fact that near the end we get the antagonist explain all and everything in a long rant to his captive subjects. Déjà vus aplenty, in City of Stairs.

Likewise, I’m not fond of obvious references to contemporary issues (like torture using loud music) or thinly veiled and much read criticisms of religions and zealotry. There’s even some buddhist-like cult that wears orange and yellow. It all doesn’t add much to the story, and, more importantly, it only hinders my suspension of disbelief: too obvious references to our real world remind me of the real world, not something I look for in fantasy. That’s not to say I don’t like to read fantasy to deepen my understanding about what being human is, since I do, but for me, that works best indirectly.

The book’s politics lack a sense of reality: there’s not one bit of real world complexity to be found, and nothing is fully fleshed out. Remarks about Bulikov’s imperialist history or the back channeling of diplomats are pretty basic, and as such mainly a backdrop for mystery and action.

There’s been some discussion on how City of Stairs mixes fantasy, spy novel, steampunk and a bit of horror. That’s true, but it’s mainly just fantasy. Inevitably, every chapter begins with some excerpt from some scholar or a mythic text. The steampunk elements only pop up less than a dozen times, basically limited to references to the fact that there are trains, glasses and gas lightning. And canons. None of these references advance the story, or really set the mood – there’s still lots of candles too. Bennett seems unwilling to make consequent choices, just for the sake of not wanting to write about a standard medieval world, but still ends up writing about something that feels like a generic fantasy world.

Likewise, the horror is limited to a monster or two, and the spy stuff is very poorly executed: almost instantly Shara Thivani reveals her cover to almost all the characters she meets. But she does crack a cypher code!

The ending felt rushed, and the motivations behind some events are either unbelievable or predictable. — minor spoilers ahead — The female protagonist suddenly is able to do complex magic because of some pills, the psychology of an awesome god takes a turn to whiny whimpness in less than a single page, there’s some clumsy and contrived oedipality thrown in, and it turns out a high-ranking official acted like a fool all along. — end —

This book tries to tackle too much: imperialistic politics, the slave-master relationship, the birth of religions, magic, alternate realities, family, the nature of gods, etc., etc., but only touches on all this different stuff lightly, without working things (nor characters) out for real.

Still, all things considered, City of Stairs is a fun read. The 450 pages fly by easily and for the biggest part retain a sense of mystery. Give it a chance, I’d say, it’s not bad, just flat & muddled, with too much exposition near the end. It works as a stand alone novel, so I’m not sure I’ll pick up the sequel, City of Blades, when it will be published early 2016.

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