Although definitely steeped in elements of epic fantasy, and wholly dependent upon a complex mythology, City of Stairs is really an urban fantasy, one set in alternate universe that's on the cusp of an industrial revolution. Robert Jackson Bennett actually dabbles in a lot of different genres here, including those of mystery and the political thriller, but he successfully ties it all together in a surprisingly cohesive whole.
The story opens rather simply, with Shara Thivani arriving in Bulikov to investigate the death of Efrem Pangyui, a renowned Saypuri historian. There's a lot more going on here than just a simple murder, however, and it's all tied to a history of conquest, occupation, and the wholesale destruction of an entire culture. It's a conquest that extends so far as to have murdered the gods that once watched over the land of Bulikov, and to have reshaped the entire landscape through the chaos of the Blink - a catastrophic, anti-miraculous sort of event that coincided with the death of gods and the destruction of their works.
Set against that wondrously complex backdrop, we have a woman who is far more than who she initially appears. Shara is a spy, a young woman banished from home due to her overzealous nature, and who has a past romantic connection to an influential figure in the burgeoning rebellion. As we later discover, however, she actually has an even deeper, even older connection to Bulikov, with a heritage that has the potential to mark her as the darkest of villains should it be revealed. At her side is Sigrud, the strange, largely silent giant from the North who accompanies everywhere. There are a lot of hints and suggestions as to his back story scattered throughout the tale, but the true depth of his history is quite impressive once it's revealed - and he, ultimately, plays a larger role as hero than even Shara. In fact, his call to arms in the final act is the highlight of the entire novel.
As much as this is a tale of people and politics, it's also one of gods and magic. In that sense, the world building here is absolutely astounding. Bennett builds a complex pantheon of gods and goddesses, with diverse cultural practices that evolved from their worship. I love what he did with the idea of edicts and rites, of rules and commandments, particularly later in the tale when he begins to explore just how much we shape the gods, and how much they shape us. Although presumed long dead, there's still a question as to the fate of the gods, with miraculous items and rites still having power, despite being suppressed and hidden away in a mysterious warehouse that puts Area 51 to shame. That warehouse plays a key role in the tale, but to say more would be to spoil the adventure.
What's perhaps most impressive is the fact that Bennett successfully manages to reveal the true fate of the divinities, drawing them into the story as both a driving force and a dividing question of doubt, creating a climax that surprises, amazes, and entertains. Considering how magical the entire novel is, with an entire continent completely conquered and brutally reshaped by the Blink, it's actually a relief to discover that it wasn't all merely window dressing. Bennett pulls together all the myths, all the cultures, and all the social/political conflicts in a resolution that may be a bit too tidy for some, but which works beautifully.
All-in-all, City of Stairs is a remarkable book, a multi-genre crossover success that is sure to appeal to a wide range of audiences. It's impressive in both scope and range, with strong characters, an even stronger mythology, and some inventive conflicts and action sequences. As philosophical as it is entertaining, it's a book that I suspect will be making a lot of year-end best-of lists.
Paperback, 464 pages
Expected publication: September 9th 2014 by Broadway Books