the Little Red Reviewer

City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett

Posted on: September 6, 2014

city_of_stairs-cover1City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett

published Sept 2014

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks!)

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Where to start with City of Stairs? To say this book has everything sounds so cliche, doesn’t it?  To say it is funny and subtle and daring and fascinating would also sound cliche. But I’m going to say all of those things anyways, because this is one of those comes-a-long-once-a-decade books that transcends. It’s like one of those Hubble images where scale is all but impossible, where you can zoom in or out, and continually find new structures that your mind tells you shouldn’t exist. That shiver you feel? It’s your worldview expanding.

 

hubble-carina-20th-anniversary-660x607

Hubble image of the Pillars of Creation, taken in 1995. click here for more info on this image.

City of Stairs is a sort of political book that’s got nothing to do with politics, it’s a fantasy where there are miracles but not exactly magic, it’s got romance that’s not traditionally romantic, not to mention culture and beliefs and history and archaeology being treated as if they are living things sitting right next to you waiting for the right moment to tell you their secrets. Like I said, it’s got everything.

 

I was recently listening to a podcast about Cordwainer Smith, and one of the Karens mentioned something about how Smith had come out of nowhere, that he wasn’t building on what other writers had done, and it was as if he was reinventing science fiction. Robert Jackson Bennett is a modern day Cordwainer Smith in a similar fashion. But, if forced to make a connection comparison (because we all like those!), to say “this book is like this other book”, the only one that comes to my mind is The Scar, by China Mieville, and only because of the depth of secrecy involved and the ultimate and intimately personal goals of some of the characters.

 

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City of Stairs starts with a courtroom ruling, followed by a train arriving in the middle of the night.

Because no one can know who she is related to, Shara inserts herself into the metropolis of Bulikov under an alias.  She’d like to know why a beloved professor was murdered, and while she’s there, she might as well do some historical research. As a Saypuri, Shara is well within her rights to research the Continental religion; it’s divine protectors, their miraculous artifacts, their mythology, how the abilities of the gods changed depending on where you where, how Bulikov became the the holy city where all gods were welcomed and where every belief was true. This is what she’s studied her whole life, and to finally be here? To finally stand in front of the ruined walls and shadows of destroyed shrines that only existed in descriptions and drawings in her textbooks? To say she is thrilled and in awe would be the understatement of the century.  Shara is madly in love with the cultural history of Bulikov,  and she’s quite aware of how rude it would be to flaunt those rights in front of the locals, who have been forbidden from studying or even acknowledging their own culture.

 

The sprawling city of Bulikov is easily a character unto itself. With shimmering walls and stairs that go nowhere, this was once the Seat of the World, the City where the six Gods of the Continent came together to decide the fate of their people. Once, there were shrines on every street corner, once there was a towering bell tower that rang a different sound for each deity. Once Bulikov was beautiful, the shining star of the Continent. Now it is a living ruin, with blank spaces where a temple once stood and buildings that blur and dissolve into each other. Bulikov is the city that was destroyed, quite literally, in the blink of an eye. The residents too, seem empty, blurred, hollowed out, utterly confused about how they are supposed to live their lives.   As political punishment for an occupation that ended in revolution, the now ruling Saypuris have forbidden the Continentals from observing, studying, or even acknowledging their own religion.   It’s no wonder they hate the Saypuris so vehemently.

City of Stairs is not a book about war, nor is it a political novel, but I fully expect it to set off a flurry of war discussions. What do the winners owe the losers? When we look in the mirror, seeking our own humanity, what will we see?

 

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“But here, in Bulikov, every piece of history feels lines with razors, and the closer I try and look at it, the more I wound myself.”

 

Like the secrets of history that have to be earned (or perhaps, recovered from), Robert Jackson Bennett metes out the details a little at a time, half sensual tease, half gentle invitation, feeding you details and history in the right proportions that push you to constantly want more.  What happened in Shara’s youth that she’s been exiled from her homeland?   How did Sigrud, a massive northern warrior, become secretary to a Saypuri secret agent?  And Sigrud, what can I say about Sigrud? He’s like Brock Sampson, only broken and shattered in any way that could matter.  The scenes that make you laugh your head off? They’ll be the ones with Sigrud at the center. Same with the scenes that make you cry.  You are going to fall in love with these characters, I promise.

 

There are a number of flashbacks, and old journal entries found, stories and myths told, and this isn’t just worldbuilding, its more akin to game playing, and it scales just like the Hubble image.  Similar to the games the characters discuss, everything in City of Stairs is one game played with the game pieces of a second game, with the rules of a third game.  If Iain M. Banks wrote fantasy (and yes, I am reminded a smidgen of Inversions), maybe it would be something like this. If the Vandermeers were to do another Thackery Cabinet of Curiosity, it had better contain something from Bulikov, hopefully something entertainingly miraculous.  As the historical secrets come bubbling to the surface, so to do the secrets of Shara, Sigrud, and Vohannes.  So do the secrets of Bulikov.   All of these people think their secrets are small and personal.  They are all very wrong.

 

City of Stairs a story of ramifications and justifications, of two way streets, of dangerous thoughts, of having your worldview dissolve before your eyes.

 

I’ve made it sound very complicated,  but thanks to Bennett’s  charming writing style, this  is a ridiculously easy book to fall right into.  The opening scenes will draw you in right away, the dialog is funny, wry, and clever, the characters are instantly fantastic, and you’ll figure out right away that all is not as it seems.

 

If you haven’t noticed, City of Stairs absolutely blew me away. Bennett’s writing is so impressively transportive that you’re nearly sure one day you’ll wake up in Bulikov, the city half destroyed by a forbidden history. A captivating story of hidden knowledge told by characters who hid from identity and history in their own ways,  It boils down to just read this book.  Robert Jackson Bennett is genre fiction’s best kept secret.  Let’s blow this secret wide open, shall we?

city-of-stairs_jk

 

17 Responses to "City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett"

I’m starting this soon, I hope! Every blogger review I’ve read has been pretty much like yours, so I’m expecting a treat:-)

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Favorite book of the year, bar none. But now I have read your amazing in depth review and can’t even look at mine. Well done.

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for what it’s worth, this review wasn’t easy to write. the book pretty much turned my brain to very happy mush.

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Same thing happened to me when I was trying to write my review, I felt very intimidated.

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intimidated isn’t quite how it was, more like I was afraid no matter what I said, I wouldn’t be doing the book justice. that I’d just spit out flat words, that I’d cheapen what was happening in those pages.

I’ve got Peter Watts’ Echopraxia sitting here, I am fully expecting to be completely intimidated by writing a review of that book!

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It’s on my TBR pile. I’m looking forward to it.

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City of Stairs was amazingly good and hit me in all the right places.

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This book has been getting so much buzz and I’m glad, I thought it was fantastic!

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Sold! Can’t wait to read it. I love a book with a strong cultural history and sense of place, sounds like that’s true of this one.

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…and the TBR pile grows….great review.

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This sounds fabulous–adding it to my to-read list.

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I’ll have to put this one on my list. Looks intriguing.

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I’m starting this one this week, glad to hear yet more great things about it!

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Awesome review, Andrea. I wasn’t sure about this one, but now I know I’ll definitely be reading it.🙂

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Just read Nathan’s review as well. I’d better get my hands on this very soon.

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[…] City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett […]

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[…] Dragon Reviews (4.5 out of 5) Ristea’s Reads (5 out of 5) Lekeisha the Book Nerd (4 out of 5) Little Red Reviewer […]

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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