City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett. ★★★★1/2
Phenomenal. If I have to chose one word to describe City of Stairs, that would be it. Phenomenal.
City of Stairs is the story of two countries, the Continent with it’s divine city of Bulikov and Saypur, a land across the South Sea. For centuries Bulikov and the Continent were able to dominate Saypur through the might of Bulikov’s Divinities. Then, a Saypuri man called the Kaj figured out how to kill the gods. Now, the gods are dead and Saypur controls the Continent and the city of Bulikov.
When a Saypuri historian is killed in Buikov, in steps Shara Komayd, a high ranking intelligence officer. She’s given one week to find the killer, but she starts to find a whole lot more in Buikov, the city of stairs.
One of the best aspects of City of Stairs was the world building. The world felt real, it breathed, it was vivid. Buikov and Saypur came alive. More so, the world felt unique. (I found a page on the author’s website with artwork of Buikov. Each picture contains links to drawings of specific buildings with historical information. It’s really awesome, and I suggest checking it out.)
In a genre filled with medieval Europe based worlds, I loved the diversity of City of Stairs. The cast was largely Saypuri and thus non-white. While I don’t know how accurate this is, I got the feeling that Saypur was based off India.
The characterization was also excellent. Shara was a great heroine, and I liked how she wasn’t the only important female character. In fact, she frequently works with Mulaghesh, the female governor of the area. The other secondary characters are fascinating as well.
City of Stairs also does a good job depicting moral ambiguity. It never falls into the trap of depicting one side as good and the other as evil. Instead, it creates a complex situation where it’s possible to feel sympathy for both sides. All of this fit well with its thematic exploration of colonialism and oppression, as well as ties to the past versus looking to the future.
About half way through, the pacing really took off, and the suspense ratcheted up. It was to the point where I stayed up three hours later than I planned to finish it.
I would recommend City of Stairs for fans of Three Parts Dead or for anyone else looking for an intriguing and well written novel.