City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: The Divine Cities (Book 1 of 3)
Genre: Urban fantasy, fantasy, post-apocalyptic
Published: 9th September 2014 by Broadway Books (US) & 2nd April 2015 by Jo Fletcher Books (UK)
It had been a while since I’ve come across such a magnificent start to a series or trilogy; City of Stairs was a fine example of genre-redefining for urban fantasy.
Sometimes you wonder why you keep delaying a series that you have been meaning to read, and when you’ve finally read it, you want to smack yourself hard for waiting so long to do so. The Divine Cities falls right into this category of “Why in the world did it take me so long to read this? It is so darn good!”
Arising from my plans this year to read more completed trilogies, I have been blessed with some astoundingly good reads thus far, and City of Stairs is one of them. How do I even begin to describe this book? It is a fantasy in that we have a secondary world that although bears some resemblance to our own, still feels fresh and steeped with its unique religion and lore, which also somewhat faintly echo ours. Aside from that, the narrative has none of the usual medieval settings but is instead more post-apocalyptic urban fantasy. And on top of that, it is also a murder mystery novel of sorts, told mainly through the perspective of a political operative/spy, a woman named Shara Komayd. A highly intelligent Saypuri woman in her thirties, Shara is the type of minority character that I’ve not encountered often enough in this genre.
The characters in this novel are beyond excellent in my opinion – they are realistic, flawed and memorable. Aside from Shara, there are two other main characters whose POVs appear less frequently but are no less fascinating. Mulaghesh, a female ex-general stationed in Bulikov and Sigrud, a huge Dreyling man (read Nordic) who is Shara’s loyal comrade. I was not surprised to know that Sigrud is a favourite of most readers out there. He gives me vibes of Ragnar and Rollo rolled into one (of course, I’ll use a Vikings reference). Silent yet deadly, and an immensely strong and capable fighter, the most epic and badass fight scene in the book belonged to Sigrud. Mulaghesh is a surprise for me, as I find myself enjoying her terse and blunt remarks at, well, pretty much everything.
Shara’s compelling characterisation takes centre stage in this book. For a woman of such small stature and unremarkable looks, she is indeed not one to be trifled with. Her cutting wit and intelligence, coupled with her well-honed instincts after years of being an operative, enabled Shara to navigate figuratively through the political landscape in Bulikov and literally through its surreal streets and corners – a once glorious city of the Continent transformed into a shadow of itself when their gods, or Divinities, died. Make no mistake, Shara is not your special snowflake or Mary Sue, but a strong-willed character who has grown into her peak by making hard choices, experiencing grief and sorrow, and surviving treachery.
Religion and politics form the backbone of the narrative and believe me, it served the plot exceptionally well. Far from being preachy or boring, the depth of the lore surrounding the Divinities and its religious resonance made the worldbuilding absolutely enthralling. As a reader, the worldbuilding is progressively revealed through the perspectives of the characters, instead of being info-dumped. Epigraphs are also used to great effect to tease and inform. To appreciate more of the religious commentary, I’ll recommend that you read this brilliant review by the wonderful Celeste. I’m not as well-versed with the aspects of religion so I will graciously defer to her insightful analysis. However, even in my less enlightened mind, I saw in the opening quote a startling allegory to the basis of religious terrorism in our world.
“Why have you done this, my children? Why is the sky wreathed with smoke? Why have you made war in far places, and shed blood in strange lands?
And they said to Her: “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?”
Wrapping up the stellar worldbuilding, characterisation and plot-building is Robert Jackson Bennett’s elegant writing. The philosophical ideas within the story come across in clear and lucid prose, which I appreciate immensely. Quotable passages don’t need to take up half a page, or more if one writes as well as Bennett does.
As I’ve mentioned above, City of Stairs is a prime example of a genre-redefining book, and a truly excellent one which I will recommend to anyone who is a fan of speculative fiction.
Review originally written in 2018