Terrible books are easy to review. They do a lot wrong, so there is a lot to point out and talk about. On the other hand, the best books are incredibly hard to review. You have to keep a tight grip on your writing so that it doesn’t simply spew into “go read this now” and helps articulate what about a book makes it so great. It is a trial to remain objective, while also trying to encourage everyone else to stop what they are doing and go read a book. This is the challenge I will attempt in reviewing City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett.
Starting with some background, the plot revolves around a spy investigating a death, tensions between two major countries, and dead gods. The story takes place on The Continent, a dead and dying country that has fallen from grace, its people struggling with their identity after seeing their gods killed. The Continent used to be a miraculous place where anything could happen. Under the benevolence of six gods, the land flourished and reigned supreme. The Continent had a small enslaved colony named Saypur that they ruled with an iron fist. Unfortunately for The Continent, Saypur rose up, killed all the gods, and reversed the master and slave roles. Our story starts a century after the death of the gods where The Continent, bereft of their all powerful deities, has become essentially a massive ghetto run by Saypur. In the opening pages of the story we learn a Saypuri official has been killed, and a covert operative named Shara arrives to investigate the death. The plot is in the style of a murder mystery that slowly unravels as you learn more about the world and is told in a teasing and fast paced manner. It had me unable to put it down from start to finish, but is only one of the many things that makes the book good.
The main cast is formed from the protagonist Shara, and three supporting characters – Vohannes Votrov, Governor Turyin Mulagesh, and Sigrud. Every single one of them places on my top characters of all time list and are all utterly delightful. Shara is a young spy away from home with an unparalleled understanding of history that empowers her to solve the mystery surrounding the book. She is witty, smart, interesting, relatable, and something unique in a fantasy landscape of similar characters. Vohannes, or Voh, was my personal favorite. A noble of a conquered people, he lives a hard life in the name of making his country better. I have seldom cared about a character as much as I did Voh, and a few of his speeches still keep me up at night thinking about them. Sigrud and Mulagesh are more trope-ish than the other two, but are no less fantastic. A stoic warrior with a penchant for doing the unbelievable, and a jaded military veteran who just wants to retire into her earned relaxation. The four of them have a dynamic that lights up every page as they explore the world.
And what a world it is. Bennett has crafted a fantastic new realm that is alive and ever changing. His humorous prose and imaginative design creates a place that piques your curiosity and vividly fills your imagination. With entirely original settings, creatures, and creations I felt like I finished the book with my imagination expanded and filled with new ideas. I have been around the block a few times when it comes to fantasy creations and I could not believe how many new things were packed into this one book. I had fun understanding how things worked, why things happened, and figuring out what I was looking at. Despite being a fantasy book, Bennett did a good job of laying the clues of the story out for you to find if you look hard enough in the true tradition of mystery novels. City of Stairs is a really fun book, but that isn’t its best quality.
The best thing about City of Stairs is that it does all the amazing things above AND it does it all while also managing to be astoundingly deep and thought provoking. The emotional impact of the plot line is not small, and the workings of the world got me thinking a lot about how the real world works. My favorite books are always those that tell stories bigger that the pages they are printed on and City of Stairs hits this dead on. I will unfortunately not tell you what it made me think about as that would spoil the fun, but know that it made me reassess how I live my life and wonder if there was more I could be doing to help those around me.
I was told by many people to read City of Stairs when it first came out, and I foolishly ignored their advice. While not published in 2015, this was definitely the best book I have read this year, and probably for awhile. Do not make the mistake I did and hold off on reading this gem. The Quill to Live ecstatically recommends you go out and read City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett.
Rating – 10/10