Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere was an interesting and complex novel that blended horror, science fiction, and the notion of the American Dream into a cohesive and entertaining whole. City of Stairs is Bennett’s first foray into more “traditional” second world fantasy. The city of Bulikov, the titular City of Stairs, was once not only infused with the magic of the gods but home to one as well. That was before the oppressed slaves from a distant land managed to find a way to kill gods and transformed themselves into a world spanning empire. With Bulikov’s patron diety dead the city’s magical nature is a thin spectre of what it once was. When a regional imperial judge is found suddenly dead the mousy, middle aged Shara Divani is sent to investigate.
The Saypuri Empire, comprised of a people who the Divinities and the Continentals had previously tried to conquer and oppress, have long established their dominance eliminated most of the religious aspects of the Continentals life through rigidly enforced law backed up by the previous slaughter of their deities. There is no small amount of resentment regarding this since the once impressively magical Bulikov was the center of the Continental world. In these broad strokes Bennett manages to craft a fascinating political situation while simultaneously establishing a world wherein magic and technology exist side-by-side; though the former now hold a spectre of its previous power. Despite the fantastical leanings there is a real grounded feeling to the novel and Bennett has created a gritty world that feels real and fleshed out even if the reader is not privy to all the details of the world’s workings.
Shara Divani is an interesting and unique lead character. Middle-aged, seemingly mousy women with an addiction to tea are not the everyday leads in your typical fantasy novel. Divani’s mousy appearance masks a core of steel and her willingness to exploit others expectations based on her appearance alone is a pleasure to witness. Bennett manages to sketch out a past for her that, in addition to providing ample room to flesh out her characterization also manages to provide a direct link to the plots and machinations being unfurled in Bulikov. Shara is accompanied to Bulikov by her “aide” the massive and imposing, one-eyed Sigurd. Quiet and with a flair for violence Sigurd is, in a word, awesome. Sigurd comes off as something like the combination of John McClane and John Rambo and is the star of two of my favorite action pieces of the novel. Sigurd’s stoicism in the face of violence and his ridiculously impressive violence lends a sort bizarre deadpan comedic element to his presence.
At just under 500 pages City of Stairs absolutely blazes by at lightning speed. While the initial few chapters make for slower reading as Bennett sketches out the details of the world the arrival of Shara is like a spark to dry timber. With its unique setting, and atypical lead City of Stairs is a novel that stands out. A plot filled intrigue, magic, mystery, and technology only help seal the deal. Bennett has really struck gold with City of Stairs and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see this title a a number of awards lists sometime in the near future. If you enjoy fantasy at all I highly recommend you give City of Stairs a shot. I am eagerly awaiting more stories of Shara and Sigurd.