Saturday, August 23, 2014

City of Stairs - Robert Jackson Bennett

Broadway Books is giving this one a big push, I've been sitting on a review copy of this novel for months now. I've seen a few reviews pop up over the past few weeks already, it would appear they've been liberal with review copies. It won't be out until September so I didn't put it at the top of the reading list. City of Stairs is Robert Jackson Bennett's fifth novel and the fist one I've read. From what I can tell, Bennett writes novels that aren't firmly planted in one genre. This novel could be considered a fantasy, but there are elements of other genre's mixed in. His novel American Elsewhere (2013) won him a Shirley Jackson award, which leans towards dark fantasy and horror. Bennett may have convinced me to try that one. I very much liked City of Stairs and it would fit into one of the reading challenges I'm taking part in this year.

The city of Bulikov was once the center of the world. A place where the gods came together and miracles were an everyday occurrence. Then, a man from Saypur, one of the conquered nations of the world, chafing under the rule of the gods, rose up and in a swift and brutal rebellion killed the gods. The city collapsed in on itself and almost a century later, is still mostly a ruin. Efforts to regain some of the former glory are blocked by the new rulers, and knowledge of the history of the city and religions that once thrived there is extremely restricted. The old gods are not that easily defeated though. Under the surface, a rebellion is simmering. When a historian from Saypur is murdered, intelligence officer Shara stumbles across evidence that the status quo Saypur has so carefully tried to maintain is about to be disrupted.

What follows is a bit spoilerish, you have been warned.

Some people will no doubt have a field day trying to figure out where in the maze of genres and subgenres this work fits. I think I'll leave that to others, I don't think the exact label is that interesting anyway. It is simply a book that is not easy to classify and that is what makes it an interesting novel. In fact, it is what made me request the advance copy in the first place. It's the hybrids, the novels that push genre boundaries, mix genres or subvert common themes, that move genres forward and this novel certainly does that.

Bulikov is one of those cities that are almost a character in the book. It reminded me a bit of Felix Gilman's creation Ararat or, to a lesser extend, China MiƩville's New Corbuzon. Places with a history, places with secrets, places where reality is, sometimes subtly, sometimes radically, different from our own. It's a broken place, fractured in the violence unleashed by Saypur, where the old way of life and old powers are trying to seep back in through the cracks. It's a place were people are working for change, straining for release from oppression and where every one is on edge, waiting for things to explode. It's this unease and tension that runs through the whole novel and keeps the reader and characters on their toes.

The city is a battleground between two political factions. One believing that they should return to the old ways, rediscover their history and the miracles that sustained them for centuries. The other side wishes to embrace the industrialization and technology that has gained Saypur its power. The gods are dead, it is time to accept this and move on. Bennett could have easily turned this into a story of the tragic disappearance of the noble old ways under the pressure of industry and technology. Thankfully he doesn't paint a picture as simplistic as that. The conservative faction is quite inventive in finding new ways to use miracles for instance. Also, some players in the game start to realize it doesn't have to be either/or.

Bulikov once knew six gods, all physical beings that actively interacted with their followers. Six gods, six religions, six stories of creation, six views on reality. For a while, these lived peacefully together, accepting that the religious faith can be different things for different people. Its an interesting structure, one that certainly will raise a few eyebrows among readers. Bennett's description of the gods, their relationship with their followers and religious fanaticism will probably strike a chord in the reader that is aware of the havoc wreaked in the name of various gods, prophets or interpretations of their teachings around the globe at the moment.

The main character Shara is, in a way, a reflection of the tension in Bulikov. She is from Saypur and a descendant of the general that killed the gods. She is constantly working to maintain Saypur's domination and suppress any manifestation of the old religions. In fact, she is not shy about killing the gods' creations herself. That being said, the history of the continent fascinates her. She is one of the most knowledgeable people on the history of Bulikov and the continent it is on. Vastly more so than the inhabitants. History has been suppressed for several generations now and that has led to wide spread loss of knowledge and cultural identity. Eventually, her experiences on the continent, the fact that she has effectively been exiled from Saypur for almost half her life and her interest in history clash with what her government demands of her, adding another level of conflict to the novel.

The backbone of the story is not made up of the political machinations however, at the heart of it, there is the murder mystery. The reasons for the historian's killing remain nebulous for a long time and tie in to just about every other aspect of the novel. He was the focal point of events in Bulikov but without the benefit of an intelligence officer's experience or a politician's skepticism. The poor man was doomed from the start, but finding out who actually committed the murder is not so easy. I must admit I don't read that many mysteries but I didn't see the solution until right before Bennett revealed it to us.

All in all I thought City of Stairs was a very interesting novel. It has a complex multilayer plot and a very satisfying resolution. The world Bennett created for this novel is not your standard fantasyland but a fully developed, slightly magical place. The way Bennett works magic, religion and technology into his story is absolutely fascinating and Bennett clearly gave a lot of thought to what would happen to a culture that finds itself without a past, at the mercy of a more technologically advanced colonizer. Where fantasy often chooses the point of view of the colonist, this novel pays attention to the consequences of forcing a change of direction for a whole culture. This one is definitely a recommended read.

Book Details
Title: City of Stairs
Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Publisher: Broadway Books
Pages: 464
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-0-8041-3718-8
First published: 2014

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