Throwback Thursday: City of Stairs

Book cover: City of Stairs - Robert Jackson Bennett (a hooded figure in clouds above a city)The Saypuri overthrew their Continental masters, killed their gods and passed the Worldly Regulations outlawing any further mention of them. But belief in the Divine lingers. Divine power can still be channelled. And now a Saypuri scholar of that forbidden history has been murdered in the Continental capital. Are the Divine returning to Bulikov?

We all greeted the idea of adding a Best Series option to the Subjective Chaos awards roster with some trepidation. Genre series aren’t known for their brevity: after some nervousness, we considered arbitrarily limiting our reading lists based on page count (Best Short Series? Erm) … only to gleefully ignore this constraint when it came time to nominate anyway.

Thankfully, the obvious limitation of series with a volume published in 2017 went some way to keeping things reasonable (“Reasonable? Those two have 5 volumes each!” “Yes, but they’re breezy reading, it’ll be fine. FIIIIIINE”). Even better, this reader found herself compelled to finally read a couple of modern classics she hadn’t yet got round to.

Robert Jackson Bennett’s trilogy of dead gods and colonial oppression was one of them. Reminiscent in some ways of Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, Bennett’s novel also has that disconcertingly modern feel to it. It’s a political fantasy with the atmosphere of a Cold War spy thriller: the city of stairs is full of terrible food, gloomy clubs, imposed bureaucracy and shadowy manoeuvring.

Bennett builds a fascinating world in ruins. Bulikov is the eponymous City of Stairs because so much of it was an expression of divine magic: impossible buildings, entire neighbourhoods that were swallowed up with the death of the city’s cruel god. The stairs are the haphazard solution to streets that now exist in separate planes (physical, not metaphysical, although it turns out there’s a few of those too). The people of Bulikov feel oppressed and are resentful; Bennett tries to capture the fear and simmering rage of an occupied country being stripped of its culture.

It’s not a recent victory: the local military governor, Mulaghesh (and hooray: she’s a gruff, competent soldier who is definitely too old for this shit and would like to retire to some cushy post in a warm coastal town) reflects that it’s been 70 years. How long does it take for the occupiers to stop being foreigners?

The answer of course, is as long as it takes them to stop behaving like imperious outsiders. The Continentals look down on their Saypuri rulers; the Saypuri despise the Continentals (and harbour their own resentments for historic atrocities). The Saypuri are determined to stamp out any last trace of the fallen Continental empire and the gods who drove its expansion and ensured its dominance. They are practical, blunt and unafraid of exerting force; in destroying the gods, they have no real opposition left. The veins of prejudice run deep on both sides; there’s no need to pick a side, either, as they’re all as bad as one another.

It’s easier to root for individual characters: protagonist Shara is the new cultural ambassador – that is to say, a spy and agent provocateur. She keeps her true identity a close secret, along with her entirely illegal magical capabilities and her regular discussions with her Auntie Vinya (literally her aunt, and also the Saypuri spymistress). Together with her unstoppably violent enforcer, Sigrud (of course I adored Sigrud. He’s a fantasy Murdersnuggles), she must identify who murdered the Professor – her former teacher in the forbidden magical arts – and why.

Ultimately, the case is an excuse for an examination of culture and character. City of Stairs takes a long look at how relationships shape us, and how they evolve over time – both between people, and between believers and the Divine. It makes for an extended, absorbing exercise in building a world that feels very fresh and characters who come to painful, vibrant life. They carry their past, their histories shaping their presents even as they try to define a new future.

Shara was a fast favourite: smart and crafty, she’s delightfully addicted to tea and given to cooking extravagantly when royally pissed off. She’s also at an unexpected disadvantage in Bulikov – if anyone discovers who she really is (a descendant of the man who killed the gods), she will almost certainly be torn apart in spite of Sigrud’s best efforts; and her ex-boyfriend Vohannes is a local notable.

Add in hissing, over the top antagonists and a dead god who is truly, toe-curlingly horrific and it’s easy to root for Shara even if you don’t entirely approve of the Saypuri government (at home or in Bulikov). I ended up unclear where I stood in terms of allegiances beyond a healthy desire to see Shara and Sigrud survive in one piece (and honestly, he gets more absurdly over the top and yet more lovable with each appearance).

While there were many good points, the antagonists’ misogyny and homophobia felt a little too much like easy markers of villainy, and I couldn’t help but resent how the plot treated Vohannes. But there are engaging ideas about how the faithfuls’ beliefs shape their gods as much as the God drives their congregations’ culture; if I ended up feeling that I was left with more of an impression of the Divine than an understanding (appropriate for a story narrated by unbelieving Saypuri, but slightly frustrating), that’s possibly on me.

City of Stairs resolves its case and draws a neat bow around the core plot, whilst leaving Shara on the edge of a new challenge. Sadly, my enthusiasm for reading the sequels has been reduced following an unfortunate spoiler, which has put me right off (at least for now). However, this works as a stand-alone and I recommend it for anyone who enjoys a modern flavour to their fantasy and a thrilling plot.