You’ve got to be careful when you’re chasing a murderer through Bulikov, for the world is not as it should be in that city. When the gods were destroyed and all worship of them banned by the Polis, reality folded; now stars lead to nowhere, alleyways have become portals to the past, and criminals disappear into thin air.
The murder of Dr Efrem Pangyui, the Polis diplomat researching the Continent’s past, has begun something and now whispers of an uprising flutter out from invisible corners.
Only one woman may be willing to pursue the truth – but it is likely to cost her everything.
Not many novels take on themes like religion, empire, or the power of history; even fewer will take on those themes, and more, all together. City of Stairs is one of those few, and Robert Jackson Bennett really has provided us with a very interesting instance.
City of Stairs is a novel packed with ideas, whose plot navigates through, between and around those ideas deftly and ably. What at first seems to be a simple murder mystery increasingly moves into deeper realms of political complications and espionage, as Shana Komayd works her way through a combination of historical scholarship and detective work. Bennett weaves a number of themes together as he does this, by making sure the different things going on in the book don’t become unrelated; rather, each action and each theme is a strand in the intricate spider’s web of the novel. Hence, Shana has to navigate issues of racism, of how a postcolonial nation can interact with its former coloniser if said coloniser has lost its power, of the intricacies of history and what it conceals, of the way mass shared belief both influences and is influenced by those holding it. These are complex, fascinating themes that nonfiction struggles to do justice to; and yet City of Stairs, by putting them in a fantastic setting, unmooring them from our everyday lived experience, and also by not trying to give answers but only ask and pose the questions, does a wonderful job of making one think about them.
Part of the way Bennett integrates this is having the cast themselves directly considering these questions; City of Stairs has characters who consider big questions and think about the world around them – Shana especially, but also others. This works because they are well-rounded, different, individual characters; each member of the cast has their own history, their own beliefs, their own different outlooks on the world, but also their own politics. Shana’s curiosity and academic approach to the world is brilliantly executed, her slight remove from the world around her is fascinatingly done; City of Stairs carries some of that remove within itself, but at the same time is able to shift rapidly to follow a different character. Sigrud is one of those others; a sort of Beowulf-riff, seemingly conciously so, with added elements of exile and strife, the dry, straightforward style of Sigrud’s passages are in marked contrast with the more intellectual, thoughtful tone of Shana’s. Bennett’s ability to switch tone and style here is magnificent, and very effective. Even characters who aren’t viewpoints can be fascinatingly written; the slightly-hedonistic modernising Vohannes Votrov is a fabulous piece of writing, combining slight camp with brilliant charm and a hard-headed realism combined with amazing idealism that really make him pop off the page, in such an amazing way, a truly vivid character in a cast of such.
The thing that really fascinates about City of Stairs is the worldbuilding. Bennett has created a complex world that interrogates a number of assumptions of our world; the dominant cultural force is the nation of PoC, rather than the racist whites who have lost their gods and their power because they refused to innovate. The gods have been destroyed, and magic is dying with them – although City of Stairs builds a number of caveats around that. The imperialist powers are seen only from the perspective of those who used to be their slaves, and now keep them poor. The multiple realities of the gods were none of them “base reality”, and all conflicted, but all were simultaneously “real”. The layering of complexity, of fascination, of different elements into the world Bennett builds in the novel are brilliant; the different cultural preferences, the way politics works, the fascinating ideas about the inner working of nations and intelligence services, all are conveyed wonderfully.
City of Stairs keeps being mentioned in the same context as Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley, and it is easy to see why; both refuse to take easy routes, or simple narratives; both take on big issues especially around power and empire; but there are some key differences, in focus and in scale. City of Stairs, though, is absolutely a novel on approximately the level of Mirror Empire; brilliant, innovative, and mindblowingly good.
City of Stairs is already out in the US, and comes out on October 2nd from Jo Fletcher Books in the UK.