City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett
City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett, is a book I’d really like to write a proper review for. My apparent inability to do so is particularly annoying since it was one of the most amazing things I read last year. I strongly recommend it. I know I mentioned this briefly last year, but I want to try and expand on it…
There are a couple of parallels to both the Commonweal series and Sanderson’s first Mistborn: The Final Empire. All of them have a common thematic element in the presence of recognisably-ordinary people who want to build a better, more-normal society in the context of a world that’s been twisted by the supernatural. City of Stairs deals with the aftermath of a successful revolt by the island-nation of Saypur against the Continent and its Divinities – and it rapidly throws every fantasy cliche you might expect out of the window. In fact it takes an almost gleeful delight in defenestrating tropes left, right and centre.
Saypur is now a democracy in the grips of an industrial revolution, so there’s no medieval stasis and no annoyingly-tedious monarchies. The societies of the Continent actually still exist – they’ve been colonised, not exterminated – and incidentally, many of the most important characters in ‘City’ are women. Shara Komayd in particular is a stand-out character (good as she’s the main viewpoint one), and General Mulaghesh is someone else worthy of note.
The book also engages closely with a realistic view of what would happen when a period of supernatural oppression abruptly ended. Now that the Saypuris rules the world, they’re free to do what they want, and the results aren’t always pretty. However, the treatment of the Worldly Regulations and their implications is thorough and nuanced – when you start to understand the full, unhealthy nature of the Divinities’ theocratic rule, you do begin to understand why people might consider something like the WR necessary.
There’s also the “twisted urbanism” element as well. I’m not a fan of the back-to-nature meme, so I like cities in my fiction. And Bulikov – the titular City of Stairs – is pretty much a character in its own right. The stairs are both literal and figurative – the city is filled wit orphaned staircases, left behind in the aftermath of the Blink. The killing of the Divinities also had the effect of erasing their supernatural works, which caused reality itself to stutter across the Continent. In Builkov, in many cases, the staircases were all that was left once magical buildings evaporated, and now they grope blindly toward the uncaring heavens. It’s a powerful and evocative image.
I was reminded of all this because I’ve spent the last two days buried in the sequel novel, ‘City of Blades’, which deals with the post-Divinity situation elsewhere on the Continent. ‘Blades’ carries on in the vein of ‘Stairs’, and is itself a powerful and entertaining novel.