Map of Blue Book Balloon

28 September 2014

Review: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs
Robert Jackson Bennett
Jo Fletcher Books, 2/10/14
Hardcover, 400 pages

My copy was bought (yes, it was ahead of UK publication date: I think I got lucky...)

Sometimes, as I approach the end of a book, my reading slows. I don't want the experience to end. I want to stay immersed in the world, accompanying the characters. I just want it go on. This was such a book, such a world; these were such characters. Robert Jackson Bennett has created a wholly believable yet utterly strange setting, peopled by diverse, interesting, maddening yet - above all - credible individuals.

The action takes place in the city of Bulikov, on the Continent (the names of people and places on the Continent are vaguely East European: Vohannes Votrov, Vasily Yaroslav, Pitry...) Bulikov was the chief city of the Continent, location of the Seat of the World where the Divinities would meet together. But it - and much of the Continent - was ruined when enslaved Saypur rose up, slaughtered the gods and enforced the Worldly Regulations, which ban even the mention of a divinity, miracle or other supernatural thing. So the Saypuri are hated by the Continentals for erasing their history: and the Saypuri hate and fear the Continentals for their cruel enslavement before the revolt.

This isn't a mouldering, legendary background.  It all happened within living memory: the events that almost every looks back to - from different perspectives - are as real to them (gods included) as Western colonialism or the Cold War to us.  It's a powerful background, which naturally motivates a story of murder, spying and revenge.

A Saypuri historian, resented by the locals for his explorations of Continental history (history forbidden to those who should own it) is murdered. Shara Thivani, secret operative - spy - for the Ministry of Foreign affairs, arrives to investigate. From that moment, the story become a blend of a Le Carré-esque thriller, a theological meditation on human and divine nature, and a techo-thriller (for certain, miraculous values of tech). If that sounds like a jumble, it really isn't.  The story is compelling: Thivani is a marvellous protagonist, experienced, successful, cynical (she exposed corruption at home and has been exiled from Saypur for sixteen years) - and torn. Torn between justice for Saypur and justice for the Continent. Between duty to her illustrious family and to her country. Between her faithless ex-lover and her murder investigation. She's just wonderful, as is her sparring partner, Governor Turyin Mulaghesh, military ruler of the city. Together the two women grumble and clash and work together to face down plots, violence and nameless horrors. It's great fun, moving, and frankly unputdownable.

Confidently, unselfconsciously, the book challenges the whiff of gender and racial prejudice that still haunts corners of the science fiction and fantasy universe. The setting isn't the stereotyped proto-European fantasy world: Saypur's people are brown, not white.  Unremarked on, women fill central roles: the closest we get to an acknowledgement that some may find this strange is the occasional aside (Shara and Sigurd meeting in an alley to hunt for an elusive piece of magic: "Does it only work for men, not women? No, of course not, don't be absurd", or Mulaghesh, grinning as Sigurd strips naked and covers himself in lard before plunging into icy water: "There are times", she says "when I kind of like my job").

The book has a vein of wayward humour. Under its Divinities, the Continent ran by "miracles" - magical tricks and artifacts created by the gods. With no gods left, many of these have stopped working. The rest are outlawed - but by a bureaucratic quirk this means they weren't destroyed, but rather confiscated, catalogued, and stored in vast warehouses (think of the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.) So we have lists of items, reading a bit like a handbook for Dungeons and Dragons:

"356. Shelf C4-145. Travertine's boots: Footwear that somehow makes the wearer's strides miles long...

357. Shelf C4-146. Kolkan's carpet: Small rug that MOST DEFINITELY possesses the ability to fly...

358. Shelf C4-146. Glass window. Originally was the holding place of numerous Ahanashanti prisoners, trapped inside the glass. When Ahanas perished, the panes bled for two months - prisoners were never found or recovered. No longer miraculous..."

The book also has darkness. The vision of the "knuckle-man", the "voice under the cloth" with its many jointedness, mockery and voicelessness, was disturbing, as were the visions and actions of some of the fanatics, devotees of dead gods.

The dark centre of the book is, perhaps, the theme of lost history. The Saypuris suppress anything divine (for fear that the gods may return? from a desire to forget their oppression? simply for revenge?) But to do this, they need to know what they're suppressing. So we have the catalogues, the warehouses, the historians.  Shara knows more about the divinities than most Continentals are allowed to. She can say things they're forbidden. In turn, the Continental resistance movements, the religions fanatics, have gaps in their knowledge, so they are effectively following a faith they have made up rather than inherited. This spiritual hole echoes the messed-up geography of Bulikov, broken when the gods died (but unremarked, lived with, because to comment on or recognise it would be to mention the divine, and that's forbidden).  The book is a bit Nineteen Eighty-Four in the way history has been rewritten. And we eventually see that this... contagion, this loss of facts, of truth, doesn't just affect the Continentals - there are things the Saypuri conquerors would rather not know as well.

It's a terrific read, compulsive, persuasive and thought provoking. One of my favourites, so far, this year.  And there's a sequel coming!

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