Sometimes I’m behind the times, and with Robert Jackson Bennett’s 2014 City of Stairs, for certain I am—or was. Distrusting the extreme hype upon release, I waited for the novel to settle a little in cultural memory, and in 2017 finally got around to it, (noting, with even more suspicion that the sequel City of Blades did not have the same level of reader response.) Worth the hype? Let’s see…
City of Stairs is contemporary epic fantasy, equal parts Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, and China Mieville (on his monster days). Featuring magic and spells, alternate worlds, and old-world gods, all driven by a classic murder mystery plot, Bennett covers familiar market material while creating a world partially unique—at least unique enough. He avoids a good vs. evil dichotomy by adding human detail to an occupied city setting, but keeps most of the focus on plot progression, fantastical reveals, numinous objects, military invasions, and a grand climax that is the stuff of classic epic fantasy.
Bulikov is a city torn, past and present. Once a proud capital ruled by six divinities, invasion from Saypur killed the gods or sent them packing, and put its populace under the thumb of foreign rule. Naturally rebellious, the natives have, in the time since, attempted to move their society in different directions. The New Bulikovian movement looks to keep one foot in the past and establish the other in the future, while The Reformists look entirely backwards, seeking to enhance and promote the very traditional values of Buliokovian golden years.
Despite the tension between these sides, the match to this cultural tinder is not obvious. It starts when Saypur sends an anthropology professor to dig through the history of Bulikov—a giant warehouse full of magical items collected during the Saypurian takeover. Most Bulikovians naturally indignant to have a foreigner pawing through prize cultural relics they themselves are not allowed access to, it’s to no one’s surprise that after a few months the professor turns up dead. Enter Shara Comayd, Saypurian cultural ambassador, who is charged with investigating the murder. Possessing a vast knowledge of Bulikovian culture, including the magical spells once active when Bulikovian divinities ruled the land, it isn’t long into Shara’s investigation that her powers are needed, and the proverbial fire is lit.
In terms of popularity and hype, it’s quite easy to see what made City of Stairs a success. A plot and character driven novel, it possesses the touch points most mainstream fantasy readers are looking for: likeable characters, buddy-buddy dialogue, a twisting plot, a mythopoeic backdrop, and of course, monsters and wizardly magic. Bennett’s prose is not as refined as his previous novels (I can’t help but feel the novel could have better fit within 100-150 fewer pages), but he at least keeps the slower pace steady and the plot reveals intriguing enough to continue. Rather, the spurious verbiage should have been used on setting, something which the story often ignores. There are details relevant to the scene, but there is no accumulation of exposition resulting in a strong feeling for the world at large. Is it Medieval? Is it modern day? Is it Victoriana? Is it a combination of those factors? And there are smaller but necessary details not described, as well. At one moment, Shara laments the inability to capture visual evidence at a crime scene, but some time later photos are handed to her of another location. Why couldn’t have she used a camera at the crime scene? And there are other such technical gray areas, leading to questions like, what exactly are the physical possibilities of the setting? Overall, I finished the story with a good understanding of plot and character, but not the world beyond (which is something this type of story should be better at) was often hazy.
In the end, City of Stairs is a fun if not slow read that satisfies the sensawunda itch that many mainstream genre readers are looking for. It’s clear why it was a success. But beyond the beach-read aspect, there is little of substance. Bennett gets relatively deep into Shara’s character and does a reasonably good job of setting the scene of a population under foreign rule, but beyond this, does not truly dig into the social or political meaning inherent to the scene. This, of course, is not to say every novel must have such layering, only that readers looking for more will be disappointed.