An atmospheric and intrigue-filled novel of dead gods, buried histories, and a mysterious, protean city- - from one of America's most acclaimed young fantasy writers. The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions - until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world's new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself - first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it - stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy. Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov's oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country's most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem - and that Bulikov's cruel reign may not yet be over.
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Wanting a break from my usual listening fare, I decided to give City of Stairs a listen. The book is described as a fantasy, but it is definitely not your typical story of Kings and Knights set in a world of Elves and Ogres. City of Stairs is set in a world with magic and wonders, but also some modern conveniences.
This book would seem to have all you need for a fantastic journey, starting with a very good performance by Alma Cuervo as the narrator, who's voice seemed perfect for the main character Sharra. The premise of the story is good as well. In a city built by gods, Sharra is a secret agent who has come to investigate the murder of a top government employee by the long suppressed people of the city. The gods have been killed by a long since dead relative of Sharra herself, and their country has been occupied ever since.
I liked the premise of this story right from the beginning, however quickly found out that there are some issues with this book as well. To start, the first half of the book starts to bog down as there is nothing really happening other than long sequences of info dumps. Characters seem to sit around and tell the story of how the city came into being rather than the story naturally laying out what had happened as the story progresses. In one example, Sharra is confronted by a city leader over her questioning of a citizen of the city. She reluctantly lets the citizen leave, and then is so angry that she invites everyone around her to the kitchen where she cooks a meal for them and proceeds to tell the entire history of every god, including what their beliefs are, their relationship with the other gods, and how they died. All interesting stuff, but the scenario made no sense, and the telling drug out miserably.
Other issues were the setting itself. I was intrigued by the setting initially as fantasy type books usually don't include such things as cars, trains, and guns. The odd thing though is that even though Sharra arrives and departs on a train, then rides in a car to the embassy, and speaks about the use of guns hundreds of years before, none of these things are featured much in the story. Cars are available, but everyone walks everywhere. Guns are available, yet everyone uses swords, knives, and cross bolts. Trains and cars have been invented, but modern conveniences like lights, plumbing, or phones have not. It's a little confusing.
Overall, despite the slow start, once the story gets going and the action picks up, I did find myself enjoying this book. The characters were mostly likable, and that carries a story with some holes in it.
I don't know why it took me so long to listen to Robert Jackson Bennett's City of Stairs -- I've loved everything I've read or listened to by him -- particularly the Troupe and American Elsewhere. Whatever the case, I'm glad I got around to it at last. City of Stairs is everything I didn't realize I wanted from fantasy fiction -- espionage, magic, murder, dead gods (and maybe not-so-dead gods), sheer WTF-ery, and even a criticism of cultural appropriation (without losing sight of telling a rollicking a story).
The story unfolds when a diplomat is found murdered in his office in the occupied colonial city of Bullikov. A spy, an aging military general, and a bodyguard come together to investigate not only a murder, but a conspiracy that leads back to the city's brutal origins, when gods once ruled and enslaved humanity. Now, Bullikov is occupied by the forces that killed the gods, and has done their best to confiscate and destroy as much of the city's religious artifacts, books, and arts as they can. As you can imagine, not everyone's happy about the way things are going, and the author does an excellent job of weaving uneasiness and tension into every character's perspective.
One of the things I've always appreciated about Robert Jackson Bennett's books is that they stand alone -- and up until now, he hasn't dabbled in series and trilogies which have come to dominate fantasy and science fiction. This book marks the first in the Divine Cities Trilogy, and maybe that's part of what put me off some. I'm happy to report that while it's the first in a trilogy (or series), and I can imagine some places it might go -- it's a complete story on its own, and doesn't feel like a set-up for whatever is coming next. If this was the end of the story, I would be completely satisfied. As it is, I'm very curious to see where RJB goes next with City of Blades.
Alma Alexander's narration isn't too flashy, but it is perfection. She captures the different characters perfectly. Shara, the protagonist, is a very complex character and Alexander nails her hard edges as well as her vulnerability and since of longing. SIgurd, her bodyguard, is something of a monster, and it's a delight to see him unleashed. But my favorite character was the jaded, sarcastic military general Mulaghesh -- mainly because her dry tone reminds me of my podcasting friend M.K. Hobson.
If agents Mulder and Scully had become spies and were sent to different countries to investigate the deaths and possible resurrection of god, with Hellboy as their assistant and accidentally stumbled over warehouse containing the ark of the covenant -- well, we'd be lucky if it was as good as this book is. City of Stairs is one of the best fantasy books I've listened to in recent memory. Just writing this review makes me want to return to the mysterious streets and alleys of Bullikov on the next train ride.