With City of Stairs, author Robert Jackson Bennett has crafted a world that works on so many different levels of crazy, a world whose physics contain so many impossible variables, a world split between realities, and somehow it all comes off rather magnificently. This is worldbuilding at its absolute finest, and it’s a wonderful story to boot.
The Continent was once inhabited by a pantheon of gods, all very different beings with different morals entirely, capable of any number of unexplainable miracles and creative properties. They were gods of the Continentals, who in turn enslaved the people of Saypur who had no gods. These gods helped create wondrous landmarks and cities. The greatest of these cities, Bulikov (known as the city of stairs), was an amalgam work of all the gods. And then came the Blink, a moment in time where, due to the cunning of a certain Saypuri titled the Kaj, the gods were destroyed somehow and the majority of the god-built portions of the Continent were gone in the blink of an eye. 300 years later and the roles are drastically reversed. The Saypuri now run the show, the Continentals are now godless and oppressed and they aren’t even to learn of their divinities, let alone worship them. This is the gorgeous historical backdrop we’re thrown into at the start of the novel.
But the story really begins with the murder of the celebrated Saypuri historian, Efrem Pangyui. This ushers in our main protagonists Shara Thivani, a Saypuri representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Continent, and her assistant Sigrud – a giant of a man with a scary dark past. Together they search for answers as to why the professor died, and in so doing get entangled in a far deeper mystery, one that could endanger just about everything. And although it is a mystery novel by nature, it’s hard to market it as a mystery, because the story and world is just so rich that you forget about all that amidst all the fun you’re having.
Many of the characters in the novel were presented with extremely thoughtful arcs. Sigrud especially is an extremely damaged character, one you downright LOVE by the time you finish the book. Not only is he perhaps the singlehanded most awesome character in the story, he’s got such a gripping backstory.
Other characters just felt necessary for moving the plot forward, and ultimately unnecessary. Vohannes Votrov is the biggest example. I never cared for the character. He seems like an afterthought to make the writing process more cohesive. And it’s not like he grows on you as the story progresses. He has very little character arc that propels him forward. Really, he’s just there to bridge the main character, Shara, from one conclusion to the next. Even his flashback scenes felt tertiary in the scheme of things.
There are certain scenes that are freakishly terrifying when you come across them, due simply to their immediately room-chilling nature. Others are so epic you might have to put your book down just to steep another pot of tea. Bennett isn’t shy when he goes into his fight scenes. He’ll give you every unbelievable detail, and will leave your jaw on the floor for pages on end. There’s one fight that, for me, topped anything that came before or after in the novel somewhere around the 60% mark. It’s one of the best I can remember.
The story is strong, in the end, but for much of the book I couldn’t help but feel that the history, the events that led up to this point, were far more interesting than the actual here and now. At some point or other the history and the here and now do seem to converge, so this was only a minor niggle that eventually fixed itself. But this book is written with an extreme air of finality. I highly doubt Bennett will consider a sequel because, although it’s certainly left open for one, the world they leave behind at the end of City of Stairs is far more entertaining than anything they’ve got going ahead of them, so that was a bit of a downer as I came to the close of the book. Overall it’s a rather incredible read, one I highly recommend to anyone looking for a new world to get lost in.