City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Jo Fletcher Books, 2014, 400 p

Borrowed from another but returned to a threatened library.

 City of Stairs cover

The Continental city of Bulikov has been under the rule of former colony Saypur since the Great War in which the Continent’s gods were killed by the last Kaj of Saypur. The war ended with the cataclysmic Blink which somehow altered Bulikov’s topography. Buildings are at odd angles, stairways rise to nowhere. On the Continent all references to the defeated gods are banned by the Worldly Regulations. Yet Saypuri historian Efrem Pangyui has been allowed unfettered access to sources about the Divines. Locals have long been stirred into resentment by the Regulations but more recently by Pangyui’s researches. His murder brings Ashara Komayd, descendant of the Kaj and a Saypuri intelligence operative (but under cover as a Cultural Ambassador,) to Bulikov to investigate it, accompanied by her tall bodyguard, Sigrud, in exile from the Dreyling north. Shara (as she is called) feels her longstanding interest in the Continental gods and their miracles makes her most suitable for the task. Her boss, Vinya Komayd, who is also her aunt, appears to be less sure.

City of Stairs is a tale of intrigue, politics, religion, fanaticism, terrorism and betrayals. In it can be read parallels to our world but in the end it remains its own idiosyncratic one. However, the story still deals with the sorts of motivations which activate humans in any time or place. At times an uneasy mix of detective story, intellectual puzzle and thriller it also has the occasional lurch into action adventure. Shara is an engaging enough heroine, if a little bookish, but her recollected reaction to the revelation in her youth of the true nature of her then lover, Vohannes Votrov, seems a little cold-blooded. And Sigrud (of whom a blurb on the cover says, “My God, ….you guys are going to love Sigrud,” – No. Sorry -) is just a cartoon figure, impossibly accomplished in combat skills. Other characters – fanatics apart – are agreeably delineated, though.

The details of the world are nicely nuanced; for example the jurisdiction of each god was geographical. The story hinges on the existence of remaining Divine artefacts which may or may not still be potent and have since the war been kept in the Unmentionable Warehouse (unmentionable because of course due to the Regulations no-one can talk about it.)

While each chapter (except the last two) ends with an extract from the Book of one of the gods or an excerpt from Efrem Pangyui’s writings there is also some not well-integrated info dumping. And despite the title stairs feature very infrequently in the book.

Bennet allows Votrov to voice the pleas for compassion, “I am sorrowful that my fellow countrymen feel that being human is something to repress, something ugly, something nasty,” and, “This incredibly damaging idea that to be human and to love and to risk making mistakes is wrong.”

A bit baggy, but City of Stairs is worth a look if you like your adventure SF/fantasy tinged with agreeable characterisation.

Pedant’s corner:- the … coat kisses the tops of immense black books (boots, I would suggest,) Ahanas’ (Ahanas’s,) none of them know (none is singular, so none knows; later on we have none strike [strikes],) the both of them (both of them, or, at a pinch, the pair of them; not, the both of them,) smoothes (smooths.) “One of the … problems … were the many, many (one of the problems was, even if it was many, many ) Vohannes’ (Vohannes’s,) “quite terribly” is used twice within two lines, “every single inch …. are engraved” (every inch is engraved ,) “more viscera slips out” (more viscera slip out – viscera is a plural noun; the singular is viscus,) “a gathering crescendo” (don’t all crescendos gather?) “a creature of an aquatic nature… swam upstream … .and begin” (began,) soldiers tumble black shrieking (back makes more sense.)

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