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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Lately, there's been a movement in fantasy away from the late medieval Western European milieu that predominates in the genre towards other kinds of settings. Why not a steampunk universe? Why not a Bronze Age universe, or a Russian-inspired one? Why not a universe where people travel in space and have "modern" sensibilities, as well as magic abilities? (See the popular "Saga" graphic novel series)
Robert Jackson Bennett is a young author who hops on that train in City of Stairs, and I took a chance on the book after it got a lot of praise online (I consider a plethora of gushy fans a cautionary sign). The novel reminds me a bit of China Mieville's The City & The City, in that the plot begins with a murder mystery and takes place in a city where there are two cultures with competing narratives, and a troubled, unspoken history behind everything.
But, where Mieville's novel was more metaphysical, this one leans more in the fantasy direction. As we learn, Shara, a foreign service agent from a country called Saypur, which has a roughly late-1800s level of technology, is one of the few people who knows much about the past history of Bulikov and the surrounding continent. This region used to be dominated by magic and a pantheon of gods, but Saypur invaded the Continent about seventy years prior, killed the gods and most of their creatures, locked up the magical artifacts, and suppressed all study of the divine. Except, of course, that being done by one prominent Saypuri scholar, whose murder begins the book. With the help of her secretary, Sigrud, a barbarian giant of few words, Shara begins a search for the culprit. And there are plenty to suspect of complicity, from an ultra-conservative Bulikov nationalist group, to an ex-boyfriend of Shara's, to her own government, to one of the gods (are they really all dead?). What was the murdered man looking for within a secret vault? And what of the legendary Saypuri leader who used a secret weapon of his own devising to slay the gods?
This was one of those novels that got off to a slow start, but gradually picked up steam towards the middle. I liked the characters, the smart but flawed Shara, the hard-headed female colonel, and the mysterious Sigrud, with his dark past. There are some great scenes involving battles with monsters, and some interesting ideas about the nature of the gods and their relationship to humanity.
The world-building, though, is a little muddled. Saypur feels like a vaguely Indian culture, but has some clearly modern and "western" attitudes. The Continent seems vaguely Russian, but is similar to "barbarian" societies we've seen in countless other fantasy and sci-fi novels. The technology and social attitudes are somewhat inconsistent -- on one hand, Saypur has cars and an advanced state of women's lib, but gunpowder and photography are relatively new inventions. And some of the magic gets a little silly, such as the final battle with the divinities. As a result, I had a hard time getting too engaged in the politics of the story -- the world never felt totally convincing.
Yet, in terms of plot, this is a pretty competent fantasy world spy/mystery thriller, and I think a lot of readers will enjoy it. The audiobook narration is good, and fits Shara well, but isn't spectacular. I had trouble distinguishing minor characters in places.
- Ryan "Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good."
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.