Robert Jackson Bennett has built a magnificent world: one full of races, countries, and gods similar to our own, but different enough to appreciate. He has also built miracles. The very foundation of his work stems from the belief that miracles are possible and tangible. While neither Saypur or the Continent fully represents a country in existence, we know there is a lingering similarity between our world and theirs. Religious persecution, racial persecution, and war ravages the people, and they all must bear it. The main characters of “City of Stairs” are rich and complex: similar enough for us to understand, but foreign enough to intrigue us into staying with the story.
Before the story in “City of Stairs” takes place, the Continent wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world. But when those they enslaved rise up and their leader mysteriously kills four divine beings, the conquerors becomes the conquered. Saypur leaders, in an attempt to prevent the past from repeating itself, come in to “help” the country, creating laws and aid system that are truly aiding no one. People in the Continent’s capital city, Bulikov, are starving. Bulikov’s proud history is written over and censored, progress has left, and now it is just another outpost of the world’s newest geopolitical power. Residents of Bulikov aren’t allowed to reference their dead deities, or acknowledge their (former) faith. “City of Stairs” comes in to life in Bulikov 85 years after the deities are gone from the world.
This is what the best fantasy does easily. It shows us our mistakes and our humanity, but it also should captivate us, and “City of Stairs” does that with Bulikov.
Bulikov was the seat of the world. It was a meeting place and shared city among the five divinities of the continent. Once gleaming with white towers and a warm climate, it has now collapsed on itself, decaying and freezing. The heart of the city was built by a god, and when he was killed all he built collapsed on itself, and in Bulikov this resulted in stairs leading nowhere and everywhere, hence the name. But the city is still full of magic and miracles. The people of Bulikov remember being prosperous and they remember their gods and love them still, and some believe that maybe they aren’t all dead.
While Bulikov is by far the most compelling and intriguing part of the story, it is also filled with complicated characters. Shara Koymad appears as a innocent civil servant come to investigate the death of a government employee, but is really a spy for Saypur. Her history and rivalry with Vohannes Votrov, a continental boy from her past, is confusing until we realize exactly what their relationship entailed. The most captivating character is Shara’s secretary, a former pirate with a tie to a king from a land called Dreyling. He might be a secretary, but he doesn’t take notes, and he kills both humans and godly creatures with equal pleasure.
In a New York Times review N.K. Jemisin said, “[Shara] never quite leaps off the page. She is a cipher evading the reader’s eyes and wits as she delves into the city’s deeply strange secrets.” On this we can agree: She is not the most captivating character, but her secrets make her intriguing. Like her job, she is hardly aware of who she is outside of the secrecy needed for her life, and as readers, we do not get to know much more than that. Before she was a spy, she was a student obsessed with life on the continent and gods, and why her country didn’t have one. What begins as a murder mystery dissolves into a story about faith, and those who have seen miracles, but still cannot believe they are real.
Last month “Jupiter Ascending” came to theaters, and many critics wrote that the story wasn’t well done. It was too different, too “other.” They said the chemistry between Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis was nonexistent. One BuzzFeed article even went to say that the story of “Jupiter Ascending” wasn’t a good story, but we must support it anyway because we need original fantasy. They’re right, but ultimately you have to have both: You have to have a well-thought-out story and the right mind to bring it to life, and in the best fantasy, you need to build a world. World-building is important to fantasy stories, because they can show us more about our culture, both domestic and abroad, than a story set in the past. Characters that exist in worlds we don’t occupy can show us how we are failing. “City of Stairs” does that well. Robert Jackson Bennett built a world with a foothold on our own reality. A world once occupied by gods that was destroyed when they left or died. It is a world complete in a way we can understand (it feels like so many countries I can’t decide where it is), where miracles happen every day, and people have been conquered. This story takes place in the middle the murder mystery and a love story. With a very scary secretary.
“City of Stairs” is the first book in a series. The next book, “City of Blades” will be out January 2016.
Literally, Darling received this book in participation with Blogging for Books.
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