City of Stairs | Robert Jackson Bennett | Pb 2015 | Jo Fletcher Books | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book
For centuries, the people of Saypur were dominated, enslaved, by Bulikov, a monumental city built by gods and men. But, finally, the Kaj, the finest Saypuri warrior, fought back, slaying the divinities who, as they fell, dismantled the great city of Bulikov with their dying thoughts, reducing it to little more than an unhappy outpost of Saypur. Now, talk of the gods is forbidden in Bulikov, their miracles are unmentionable, their relics locked away in secret immense warehouses that no-one can enter. Until Dr Efrem Pangyui, a Saypuri scholar arrives. Determined to unravel the secrets of the gods, Pangyui arouses the hatred of the Bulikov citizens who are denied the knowledge he seeks. Pangyui is murdered, a crime that shocks the Saypuri overlords. Shara Komayd, an unimportant Saypuri cultural ambassador is despatched to investigate the crime. But Shara is not as lowly as she appears. She is a descendant of the Kaj, proud and capable, and she is set on continuing Pangyui’s hunt. As she chases his clues into the heart of the disfigured city of Bulikov, the evidence suggests that not all of the divinities were slain and they might be about to wake from their sleep.
City of Stairs has been described as an epic fantasy but for me it has a much stronger feel of urban fantasy about it. It seems to be set in a recent past that is recognisable while its inhabitants, the Saypuri and the Continentals, the people of Bulikov, are strongly reminiscent of Asian and Russian populations. The centuries of oppression that the Saypuri endured has now rebounded on the Continentals and it is every bit as horrible and demeaning. Shara is enlightened and wise and through her eyes we see the cruelty of the Saypuri overlords, right down to the inflammatory art on the walls of public buildings and the corruption of their officials. We hear hints of the deprivation that the Continentals endure, physical as well as spiritual, while there are reminders of the days when the Continentals with their capricious gods were the masters. The murder of Pangyui is just a symptom of the hatred between the two peoples but it also serves as a catalyst.
The worldbuilding in City of Stairs is superb. The city of Bulikov with all its eccentricities and wonders, now hugely diminished, comes alive as we tour its streets with Shara. This is matched by the strong history and magical past and culture that the author evokes. Likewise, the characters are outstanding. Shara is fascinating and complex, containing a little bit of the forbidden magic within herself, and there are some entertaining exchanges between herself and her fellow Saypuri, both in Bulikov and at home. Her servant Sigrud is a wonderful creation. He is a giant from the cold northern lands with so much of the Viking about him – in appearance and in behaviour. I also enjoyed the rather jaded governor Turyin Mulaghesh who just wants a quiet life. And then there are the worshipers of each of the divinities. Throughout we meet the different groups, each distinct and exotic, not to mention disturbing.
The book is full of wonders, especially, for me, as Shara begins to discover the secrets of the hidden warehouses. This is a world in which miracles can happen and sometimes they’re there, right in the corner of your eye as you watch this fabulous city try to resurrect itself.
There are big themes here – this is not an easy world. Both ‘sides’ have inflicted great damage on the other. People starve, are tortured and labour until they die. There is nothing noble in either side and the true extent of the horror is only revealed piece by piece. The role – and character – of the gods in all this is also ambiguous. Religion is a dangerous thing not least because on this world you can touch it and faith can be a dangerous force. But Shara is a figure of hope, however much she works to keep close her own secrets.
Well-written throughout and deeply evocative, City of Stairs is an intriguing and clever fantasy adventure. Beginning as a murder mystery, it expands into a novel with as many layers as can be found within the towers and stairwells of Bukilov.