book reviews by Althea

City of Stairs – Robert Jackson Bennett *****

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Bennett’s not an author who’s been on my radar – and that’s going to have to change.

‘City of Stairs’ is a top-notch fantasy spy thriller.

It begins with a murder mystery… noted scholar Ephrem Pangyui has been killed in the city of Bulikov. Soon, Shara arrives on the scene to investigate.

Her job is complicated, however, by the fact that just about everyone in Bulikov is a suspect.

For hundreds of years, the Continental empire, of which Bulikov was the capital, ruled the Saypuri with a strong hand. Bulikov, bolstered by its six deities and their very real miracles, was an unstoppable power. Until, around a generation ago, a Saypuri leader discovered a way to murder the gods.

Quickly, the power structure toppled. The destruction of the gods and their miracles caused physical destruction and magical ‘glitches’ the likes of which Saypuri could not have predicted – but which they rapidly took advantage of. Now, Bulikov is a conquered city, squirming under the foot of powerful Saypur. Any reference at all to the religions and gods of the past is forbidden. All remaining magical artifacts and historical writings have been warehoused, and are forbidden to natives of Bulikov.

Naturally, resentment rides high. Pangyui, the murder victim, was a Saypuri, allowed to research and investigate a history now legally denied to its rightful inheritors.

However, Shara is determined to find the killer – because Pangyui was someone she personally knew and liked. Luckily for her, she’s not merely the lowly ‘Cultural Ambassador’ that her credentials claim – she’s well-connected to the rulers of Saypur. She’s also got her sidekick, Sigrud, a juggernaut of a man, with obvious talents as well as hidden depths.
Working against her, however, is the uncomfortable fact that it looks like the powerful city leader that she’ll need to ingratiate to help her navigate the murky tunnels of Bulikov’s politics just happens to be her college boyfriend – and she ended that relationship on a rather unpleasant note.

Of course, as Shara digs into the circumstances of the crime, what she uncovers is far larger than a single murder. The plot progresses at a fast pace; it’s tense and action-packed.

The world-building is great – the politics are complex and nicely-believable (yep, corruption, short-sightedness and self-interest everywhere). Half-ruined Bulikov is aesthetically wonderful: grimy, weird, destroyed, but still alive and trying to recover from its setbacks. The cultures are well-drawn, and the characters shown are believable products of their cultures. Nearly everyone here is both flawed and sympathetic [well, to an extent], and even the more reprehensible individuals are comprehensible in their motivations. it does a great job of portraying real people caught in a problematic political situation.

There are parallels with our world – this ‘feels’ like an alternate 18th century (photography has just been invented). The Continentals have a definite Eastern European feel. Saypur is, perhaps, South Asian. Sigrud, unsurprisingly, is from a seafaring Scandinavian-type place. However, there are enough surprising details to give the books a markedly fresh and original flavor which transcends genre.

Highly recommended.

Many, many thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy and the opportunity to read this book.


One thought on “City of Stairs – Robert Jackson Bennett *****

  1. Pingback: 2014 Round-Up! | readingtrance

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