City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett is one of the books I enjoyed reading the most this year. It left a lasting impression on me not only through its skillfully chosen main characters, the strong prose, and the memorable worldbuilding. What I enjoyed the most is the realistic cultural worldbuilding of the two nations and their enmity to each other. The way the cultures develop and how they came to be at this point in time of this book is a step above most other books. The author has a keen understanding of how cultures and nations react and interact and that made the book a treat unlike any other for me.
Just take, for example, the way the Nation of Saypur treats their now defeated enemy, the Continent. This once great nation is left in a state of disrepair, unable to stand up again on its own. In fact, Saypur goes to great length to let the continent stay at a low technological and industrial level, keeping it small instead of issuing all the help they could. Their reasoning is understandable, as the Continent used them as mere slaves and did unspeakable things to them. Interesting for me is that a similar tactic was spoken about in regard to what should happen to Germany after the world war. One idea was to keep Germany small, especially in regard to industry and technology. Basically have it become a great stretch of farmlands, so it could never against muster the strength to start another war.
Many of the aspects of this book are closely related to similar happenings in our own world. Take the epidemics that killed off large parts of the indigenous people after the arrival of the european aggressors in the new world. A similar thing happened in the history of Benett’s world. Granted, the arrival of new diseases had other reasons, but the devastating effect stays the same. It’s interesting to see so many parallels between the our real and this imagined world.
This book is a must read if you’re a fan of history, as Bennett manages to build a realistic and compelling history for his world.
The change in culture and the relation between these two nations that’s fought for and in progress at the present of the story is another treat with as much realism. The industrial revolution is in full progress and as such the book rises out of the common pile of medieval similitude that dominates part of the fantasy genre.
That’s already a lot of praise, but I have more!
I loved the two main characters, Shara Thivani and her “secretary”, a large Dreyling (a Northman) that does the heavy lifting in this book. And though there’s not that much fighting and action (with the protagonist herself being much more of a historian and god did I love that side of her), whenever Sigrud does what he does best, killing stuff, that’s very entertaining without seeming overbearing.
If I had to name something that didn’t work as well for this truly exceptional book, it’d be the story. It’s by no means bad, but Bennett’s worldbuilding hovers over the plot and can push the actual story out of the way. The murder of the historian and friend of the protagonist that starts this story is a mystery that drowns under all the new details we learn about the history of the world and its solving isn’t essential in the end, though I liked how it got resolved. What was my biggest gripe with the story was actually something else entirely. I found some things to be rather predictable and with a genius protagonist I’d think she could have come to the same conclusions as me.
To give you a short and none-spoilery example: Where the assailants and enemies vanish to and what made such an act possible is very apparent from the first time we witness such an act.
That’s only for some parts though and others are kept secret until they could be revealed for maximum surprise, which worked quite nicely most of the time.
Concluding: As you can already see, I liked the book a lot. It ranks very highly on my list of favorite books for this year and has earned its rightful place amongst many of the renowned books of the fantasy genre. It’ll stay very high on my personal list of favorites too, mostly because it takes such unique worldbuilding and pairs it with exceptional prose to create a treat for everyone.