Assistant Peter Recommends: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
It’s Brandon’s assistant Peter again with another book to recommend to you.
I first read Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs (which was released today) back in November when an early copy was sent here to the Dragonsteel offices. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to think of the best way to describe it.
As usual, I read this book completely cold, without reading any description. And I loved it. I then recommended it to Brandon’s other assistant Isaac to see what he thought. Here’s what Isaac says:
If Peter Ahlstrom tells me I should read a book, I listen because he hasn’t yet steered me wrong. He’s consistently handed me books that I absolutely love. I don’t know if that’s because our reading tastes overlap quite a bit, or if he’s got some kind of Sandersonian magic system at his disposal that allows him to crumble the pages of old texts in order to peer into my reader’s heart and find books that meet all my fondest dreams. I suspect it’s the latter, especially when it comes to City of Stairs. He recommended I read the book, and I loved it. I’ve read very few books that feel engineered specifically for me (Brandon’s books qualify, and I assure you that I’m not obligated to say that), but City of Stairs also stands in this group. 99% of it was made just for me. If Peter has the magic to find the books that speak to my reader’s heart, then Robert Jackson Bennett has the magic to look into my heart and write the book I want to read. The characters, the world, the gods, the city, the horrors—this is my kind of book! I can’t wait to read the sequel. Heck, I can’t wait to re-read the book when it’s released on Tuesday! When Hugo nomination time comes around, I’m putting City of Stairs on my list.
Yeah. Honestly, it’s that good. If that’s enough for you, go and read it now. Here are the caveats. After them I’ll try to describe the book (but won’t give too much away).
Sexual content: There’s nothing onscreen except perhaps one vague scene. The aftermath of and leadup to sexual content appears a couple of times. This is a minor aspect of the book as far as screen time goes.
Language: There’s some profanity, particularly in a few scenes. There is also language of a sexual nature. One particular scene has some of this, and it’s one of the most powerful scenes in the book. Thus it’s not gratuitous at all, though it’s something some readers may not want to see, so I’m mentioning that here.
Writing style: This book is written in present tense. I know that annoys some readers. For me, while I’m more used to books written in past tense and present tense can be a bit jarring at first, it quickly becomes transparent and I stop noticing it.
Although I loved the book, and I also love Brandon’s writing, I’m not saying this book is like one of Brandon’s, not like the Brent Weeks books I recommended two weeks ago. People have different tastes, and not everyone will agree with me on this book. I hope many of you will.
A few years ago at the World Fantasy convention in I forget what city, I picked up a copy of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. I didn’t read it immediately, but eventually I got around to it, and it was quite an experience. The imagination that China put on display in that book was surprising, and the mystery plot was fascinating. However, the ending of that book left me cold and depressed. (I’m pretty sure that’s what China wanted.)
Reading City of Stairs was a bit like reading Perdido Street Station—but not quite as weird (there aren’t any beetle-headed people, though there is a sort of Lovecraftesque monster that gets loose at one point). The writing style is easier to get into. And most importantly for me, the book is satisfying rather than depressing.
Like Perdido, City of Stairs runs on a mystery plot. And like in Perdido, the city itself becomes a character of sorts. The eponymous City of Stairs, Bulikov, was once ruled by a handful of gods who walked among their worshippers—and the worshippers intermingled, even though each god’s tenets disagreed with the others’. The divine nature of the city once allowed its citizens to rule the known world.
Now, the city has been conquered and the gods are dead. And, what I find most interesting, worship of those gods—even their public acknowledgment—is illegal. What happens when your gods are defeated in battle and you can’t worship them anymore or even admit that they once existed? What does that do to a society?
The city itself is also broken. Built on divine power, when those divinities fell, many areas of the city simply vanished. Other parts became a shadow of their former glory. Other parts seem to be not quite right when you look at them closely.
Into this situation comes Shara Thivani, of the conquering nation, investigating the murder of a former mentor. And her investigation leads to greater questions. For the conquering nation hails as a hero the man who killed the gods—but no one really knows how he did it. And some of the outlawed divine magic still works—and why is that, if all the gods are dead?
This is not a grimdark book. The characters are good people trying to do good things, though they often fight with impulses to do otherwise. There are antagonists who are not nice, but they are not evil—they are trying to do what they think is right, in their own way. And that’s the best type of antagonist as far as I’m concerned.
One more thing I want to say is that I’m happy there’s going to be at least one sequel. But the story in this volume is very satisfyingly complete. The next volume, I’m pretty sure, takes place in a different part of the world. I do like continuous epics, but from time to time I also like reading books that stand on their own very well. City of Stairs does that, and it was such a joy to read.
So, once again, this recommendation has meandered quite a bit. The best thing I can say is simply to read the book. There’s a preview chapter here on Tor.com. Or if you want to see what Brent Weeks has to say about the book, you can read that here.