“Time renders all people and all things silent. And gods, it seems, are no exception.”
I have a confession to make. I purchased this trilogy in February of 2017, even preordered the final installment though I hadn’t read the first two. I just knew that it was a trilogy that I would love based off of the synopsis. There is nothing in the realm of fiction that I love more than unique religions and overt philosophizing. While setting and characterization and plot and prose are what make a book function, the books that make me happiest are those in which religion and philosophy play a vital part. However, even though I was almost positive that I would love Bennett’s trilogy, I kept putting it off for some reason. Petrik finally convinced me to give in and read it, and I’m so thankful that he did. It was everything I hoped it would be and more.
“[She] had never realized until that moment what books meant, the possibility they presented: you could protect them forever, store them up like engineers store water, endless resources of time and knowledge snared in ink, tied down to paper, layered on shelves… Moments made physical, untouchable, perfect, like preserving a dead hornet in crystal, one drop of venom forever hanging from its stinger.”
The above quote perfectly expresses how I felt about this story. It had lived on my shelf for a long while, simply biding its time until I pulled it from the embrace of its companions, opened to the first page, and allowed it to blow my mind. The book was so much more potent that I could have hoped, and I’ve thought of little else both while I was reading and after I closed the cover for the last time.
(Before I really dive in to the review, please be aware that there will be some light spoilers, but nothing specific. These will be descriptions of the world built by Bennett that can be found in the synopsis or within the few couple of chapters of the book. Also, this is a much longer review than I generally write; I had too much to say to keep it short. Consider yourself warned!)
“The Divine may have created many hells, but I think they pale beside what men create for themselves.”
Once upon a time, gods walked the earth, performing miracles and leading their followers in the ways they desired to go. The Divinities that revealed themselves were: Olvos, the light-bearer; Kolkan, the judge; Voortya, the warrior; Ahanas, the seed-sower; Jukov, the trickster, the starling shepherd; and Taalhavras, the builder. Between them, these Divine beings led the people of the Continent and build for them a land of wonders. But the Continent wasn’t the only land in this world, and the people from other lands were treated as slaves and worse by the Continentals, and had no Divinity of their own to protect them.
“If we were only meant for labor, why give us minds, why give us desires? Why can we not be as cattle in the field, or chickens in their coops? … If we are but a possession of the children of the gods, why do the gods allow us to grieve? The gods are cruel not because they make us work. They are cruel because they allow us to hope.”
But one day, the Saypuris, as one such slave race were called, rose up against their tyrant masters across the seas. The Kaj, their leader, created a weapon that could not only wound but actually kill a Divinity. And so Saypur cleansed the Continent of their protectors, and the slaves became the masters. Not that they viewed their conquest as enslavement, mind you. No, they were merely stepping in to care for the people of the Continent as they adjusted to their harsh new world. For you see, without the Divine, the miracles that they had known their entire lives had no ties to the earth. As each Divinity breathed their last, every miracle they had ever created blinked out of existence.
“Whole countries disappeared. Streets turned to chasms. Temples turned to ash. Stars vanished… In short, a whole way of life—and the history and knowledge of it—died in the blink of an eye.”
Saypur has outlawed any mention of the Divine on the Continent, while they themselves are free to study the forbidden history of the people they conquered. But in spite of all the Regulations Saypur has put in place, the memory of the Divine still hangs over the entire world like a storm cloud. No amount of fines or regulations can erase what the people hold in their minds and hearts. And nowhere is this more pronounced than in Bulikov, the capital of the the Continent. City of Walls. City of Stairs. Most Holy Mount. Seat of the World. Bulikov was and is all of these things, and one has but to look at the miraculous wall encircling the city or the thousands of sets of stairs leading up to nowhere to be reminded.
“The city knows. It remembers. Its past is written in its bones, though the past now speaks in silences.”
“In Bulikov, every piece of history feels lined with razors, and the closer I try and look at it, the more I wound myself.”
Bulikov is one of the most fascinating settings I’ve come across in fiction. It’s a place of secrets and depth and confounding plurality. I loved this description of the skyline:
“Columns pierce the gray sky again and again, stabbing it, slashing it. It bleeds soft rain that makes the crumbling building faces glisten and sweat.”
Isn’t that one of the most atmospheric descriptions you’ve ever read?
One of the first things that struck me was how technologically advanced the setting was compared to the majority of epic fantasy. (And yes, I do think this fits the epic fantasy mold. I think N.K. Jemisin definite the genre beautifully here, should you care to read more.) I’ve never come across epic fantasy that felt like urban fantasy as well, but that’s exactly what this was. Here we have modern conveniences like automobiles and indoor plumbing brought into the city by the Saypuris, while many of the Continentals continue to live in relative squalor, refusing to accept technological replacements for the miracles they’ve lost. But Saypur honestly cares little for advancing the Continentals, despite their public stance on outreach. More than anything, they occupy their former enemy to prevent said advancement. They want to keep the Continent in their shadow, instead of ever allowing their roles to be reversed again.
“Your job is to make sure that the past never happens again, that we never see such poverty and powerlessness again. Corruption and inequality are useful things: if they benefit us, we must own them fully.”
Our main character is Shara, a political spy for Saypur’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But Shara is conflicted about her job, even though she’s amazing at it. She’s come to Bulikov without permission to solve the murder of a close friend. Shara is incredibly intelligent and easily overlooked. She uses both of these qualities to her advantage, sniffing out clues that others would never catch. I loved her as a main character. There was no whininess here; just quick wits and determination and subterfuge. Her physical appearance is utterly unremarkable, which serves to make her even more dangerous. Shara has experienced pain and grief and betrayal, which made her a richer character. She’s a treasure, and her mind was a joy to experience.
“Scars are windows to bitterness—it is best to leave them untouched.”
Of our secondary characters, the three most important are Governor Mulaghesh, a war hero who is counting down the day until her retirement; Vohannes, a wealthy Continental City Father who was involved with Shara in the past; and Sigrud, the brawn to Shara’s brain. Sigrud was hands down my favorite supporting character. He’s such an unapologetic badass. I loved his friendship with Shara, and his willingness to get things done. There’s one particular scene involving him that was perhaps the most epic scene involving a single character I’ve come across in any book, ever.
“The world is a coward… It does not change before your face; it waits until your back is turned, and pounces…”
While I loved the setting and the characters and the mystery of the story, again I have to say that my favorite aspect of the book was the religious/philosophical element. There were so many questions raised here. Within the confines of this series, did the Divinities create their followers, or did man create the Divine? If the gods of this world were truly Divine, then how could they die? If man created the gods in their own image, then were all of their decisions, no matter how brutal, products of man’s unspoken desires?
“Look at them! They’re praying to pain, to punishment! They think that hate is holy, that every part of being human is wrong.”
“Humans are strange. They value punishment because they think it means their actions are important—that they are important. You don’t get punished for doing something unimportant, after all.”
We as humans are as varied as snowflakes. What works for one often does not work for everyone. When opinions can be manifested as edicts, were does that leave those who don’t fit the mold? It leaves them cast out. It leaves them punished for being themselves, for viewing the world differently than their neighbors.
“Namely, I am ashamed that I was asked to be ashamed, that it was expected of me… I am sorrowful that I happened to be born into a world where being disgusted with yourself was what you were supposed to be. I am sorrowful that my fellow countrymen fell that being human is something to repress, something ugly, something nasty.”
I’m a Christian. I believe in one God, a God who created us to be unique and free-willed. I believe that He was here before the dawn of time, and that He is bigger than we could ever imagine. I believe that He is unfathomable, and yet He is an open book who loves us and allows us to make our own decisions, even if they harm us. I believe that man has used God and His manmade counterparts throughout the centuries as excuses to wage war on his fellow man, and to excuse his hate and small-mindedness. Bennett’s book opens with one of the best explanations of religious persecution and hatred I’ve ever read:
“You blessed us as Your people, and we rejoiced, and were happy. But we found those who were not Your people, and they would not become Your people, and they were willful and ignorant of You. They would not open their ears to Your songs, or lay Your words upon their tongues. So we dashed them upon the rocks and threw down their houses and shed their blood and scattered them to the winds, and we were right to do so. For we are Your people. We carry Your blessings. We are Yours, and so we are right. Is this not what You said?”
While I might not agree with Bennett’s worldview on all points, I have immense respect for his depth. The story he wove here is mindblowingly good. It gave me an incredible amount of food for thought. I’m already discussing it with my family and trying to convince them to read it.
On a final note, can I just say that Bennett’s prose is superb? I don’t usually include this many quotes in a review; in fact, I often forget to include any at all. But I have around 40 highlighted passages in my Kindle copy of this book, and they were just too good not to share. Not only am I excited to finish this trilogy, but I can’t wait to track down everything else that Bennett has written. I love how he crafts a story. I’m pretty sure that I’ve discovered a new favorite author, and am already trying to decide what books I’ll be moving from my special shelf to make room for this trilogy.
“Life is full of beautiful dangers, dangerous beauties… The wound us in ways we cannot see: an injury ripples out, like a stone dropped into water, touching moments years into the future.
I recommend this series to anyone who appreciates depth in their fiction. If you want a story that will not only enthrall you but will make you think and grow and question, this is the series for you. City of Stairs was so genre-defying that I feel it can be recommended to anyone. It’s a mystery, chock full of suspense and shocking revelations. It’s an epic fantasy, with a creative magic system and a lush mythology. It’s an urban fantasy, with action lurking in every alley. It’s a horror novel, with creatures that will haunt your nightmares. It’s a philosophical treatise, a religious dissertation, an anti-colonialism critique. It’s without a doubt a book worth reading, and I can’t praise it enough.
You can purchase a copy of the book here, with free shipping worldwide!