This post is a sort of salvage operation for a project that didn’t work out. Back in November, I had this idea that I’d read two newish fantasy works that were getting all the online buzz and offer my insightful opinions about them. “Join the conversation,” as they say. Unfortunately, thanks to some personal issues, it ended up taking me a month to read through the first of the books, Robert Jackson Bennett’s 2014 hit City of Stairs. As for the second book, Seth Dickinson’s 2015 hit The Traitor Baru Cormorant, I ended up dropping it at the beginning of January after about thirty pages. Another lesson, I suppose, of the folly of doing things just to make yourself popular.
However, that’s not the whole story. City of Stairs was a book that, by all objective criteria, I should have enjoyed, and yet something about it left me faintly disappointed. I didn’t hate it, per se, but I felt it was less than it could have been. It’s strange, since I’ve seen nothing but praise for it online, and I don’t really know what everyone is seeing in the book that I’m missing. This “review,” or whatever it is, is also going to be my attempt to properly hash out my thoughts on the book and get it out of my system. Additionally, I’m gearing up to read the sequel, City of Blades, so I figured it might be useful to leave some concise record of what I thought of the first book before I assayed the second.
The premise of City of Stairs certainly promises great things. Once upon a time, there was a place called the Continent where the gods mingled with men. They cared for their people, built them cities, and granted them weapons to forge an empire that encompassed most of the civilized world. One day, however, in the colonial backwater of Saypur, a man named “the Kaj” appeared with a weapon that could kill gods. After liberating his homeland, he and his followers sailed to the Continent, and over several years slew all of the gods that dwelt therein. As they died, the miracles the gods had cast were undone, turning powerful talismans into useless bits of glass, and transforming cities from glittering neighborhoods of white marble towers into shantytowns. In an instant, the peoples of the Continent were transformed from the masters of the world to a nation of refugees.
City of Stairs picks up some seventy-odd years after these events. The world has industrialized, with Saypur becoming the dominant economic and military power on the planet. By contrast, the Continent has remained an impoverished and violent place, little helped by a Saypuri military occupation whose attitude towards governance could most charitably be described as “incompetently punitive.” The former Continental capital of Bulikov, the main setting for the novel, in many ways represents the Continent in microcosm. The city is haunted by the image of its former glory, where glorious temples and palaces have been demagicked into shabby little replicas and the skyline is crowded with spiraling staircases that no longer lead anywhere. Politics have been divided between liberal modernizers who wish to leave the past behind and enter the industrial era and revanchists who talk of blood and vengeance. The Saypuri military-colonial authority does little to help matters, devoting most of its energy to confiscating artifacts and suppressing knowledge of the Continent’s divine past.
In such troubled times, the murder of a prominent Saypuri historian researching the origins of the gods is the sort of event that could easily spiral out of control. To head this off, intelligence officer, granddaughter of the Kaj, and old Continental hand Shara Thivani Komayd makes the trek to Bulikov with her bodyguard/hired barbarian Sigurd to take charge of the investigation herself.
Just from this summary, it would seem like this book would be a sure-fire winner. A political thriller starring a bookish woman set in an industrialized fantasy world dealing with old historical traumas would seem to be right up my alley. And yet, somehow, City of Stairs feels like less than the sum of its parts.
Part of that problem concerns the basics of the setting. Now, I had some experience with Robert Jackson Bennett’s work prior to City of Stairs, and I had him pegged as a writer who was most comfortable working with American culture, usually in a fantasy-horror vein. After hearing that City of Stairs was going to be his first foray into full-on secondary world fantasy, I have to admit I was a little skeptical that he was venturing into something far outside his normal wheelhouse. Sadly, my concerns turned out to be justified. A lot of it was little things like word choice; the Slavic-themed Continentals occasionally having ersatz-Germanic names like “Vohannes” and “Ernst,” or people living with a 1890s-1910s technological base using a word like “telecommunications,” which struck me as a sort of word you wouldn’t see commonly before the 1960s. However, I also found myself having problems accepting the world on its own terms, of accepting that Bulikov was a place rather than an authorial construct. City of Stairs is a novel with little intimate detail, few digressions on aspects of the world that are told with authority, that seem borne of experience. Certainly I’ve seen Bennett successfully use these elements before; in American Elsewhere there’s an extended scene in a general store that describes everything the store sells, from the kitchen sets to the magazines on the rack, that powerfully evokes the ersatz-1950s-Levittown feeling of the setting. By contrast, there are no magazines in Bulikov.
The greater issue I had with City of Stairs was that the book fell into the classic American genre trap of having high political and philosophical ambitions but ultimately being unable to either shed its pulp-adventure form or rework it to its advantage. It’s an issue that damages the novel on both a structural and a thematic level. Ideally, an espionage-type thriller in the le Carré vein would seem to be ideal for exploring ambiguous issues of history and memory, with its concealed motives and its protagonists forced into more passive roles. The problem with City of Stairs is that, while it tries to maintain some of these forms, the concessions it makes to adventure fantasy undercut the narrative power of these forms. Shara’s introduction to the novel is case in point: her first major act after arriving in Bulikov is to depose the reigning (incompetent) Saypuri ambassador in a move that seems less like that of a seasoned operative who works by not making waves and more like a naked attempt by the narrative to make her look like a cool badass. The sad irony is that, by introducing her as a arbitrarily disruptive force and for said introduction to be so obviously structured as to make her look cool and badass, Shara instead comes off as somewhat incompetent. A later scene, where Shara is dumbfounded at the existence of a Saypuri warehouse complex filled with Divine artifacts, despite it being the sort of “no one knew, everyone suspected” secret an old hand like Shara would know about, does little to help matters. However, the biggest problem caused the mix of genres is Shara’s hired muscle, Sigurd. He is, for all intents and purposes, a barbarian hero, and he does not belong in this book. Yet he goes about town, beating up conspirators and getting into knife fights with giant magical octopi in the Solda River, and he seems to be the most popular character from the book, which I find mystifying.
The struggle City of Stairs has with marrying its content with its form also has the effect of drastically simplifying the central conflict. To spoil some of the book, Shara’s investigation of the historian’s death eventually transforms into an investigation of the conservative political faction who, as it turns out, are plotting both an aerial attack on Saypur’s biggest port and to resurrect one of the Continent’s supposedly dead gods. The few times the novel allows them to speak, the conservatives are vengeful, racist, sexist, and homophobic…and that’s about all they are. They have no interior life, no ideology, nothing. The god in question does get resurrected and is eventually defeated in the climactic battle royale, portrayed all the while as an insane, wounded creature that prays for death. There is also a certain odd reluctance to criticize the Saypuris themselves. There are brief mentions in the text of horrors perpetrated by the Kaj’s army in the campaign against the gods, including what amounts to a campaign of genocide against the magical fauna of the Continent, but nothing is elaborated or related to contemporary events. What problems do exist are primarily the fault of individual Saypuris, and they are all dealt with by the book’s conclusion. Now, Bennett has said that one of the overarching themes for the book and its two sequels is to explore how liberal democratic values can endure and grow in a dangerous world, which is fine and dandy even if it’s not quite what I believe. However, when I finished City of Stairs I did so under a bit of a chill. Imperialism and cycles of revenge are soundly rejected and the stage seems to be set for a more enlightened era to begin, but I could not shake the feeling that a more insidious form of imperialism had triumphed, one where “universal” values are adopted because all alternatives to them have been systematically destroyed.
Now, there were some parts of City of Stairs I enjoyed. My favorite character of the whole bunch was General Turyin Mulaghesh, the foul-mouthed hardass military governor of Bulikov, if only because she was Lin Beifong from Korra in all but name. The few horror elements, particularly Shara and Sigurd’s encounter with the mhovost, are excellently done. Bennett’s depiction of Bulikov as a city where everything changed in an instant, where people were devastated in a war that killed no one, and where the skyline is haunted by ruins of the past reminds me a lot I have read and seen coming out of the Eastern Bloc immediately after the fall of communism (even if the simplified politics of the book also reminded me of my most hated of Western journalism clichés, the heroic modernizing liberal democrats against the malevolent reactionary conservative/Nazi/communist dead-enders).
Given that this is a single volume that has been expanded into a trilogy, I’m not sure if I can make any definitive statement on City of Stairs. I’m going to be starting the sequel this week, and given that it follows Mulaghesh and deals with some of the less savory aspects of Saypur’s occupation suggests it will deal with some issues that the first book overlooked. For the moment though, City of Stairs is a diverting adventure on the surface, but doesn’t reach the heights it aspires to reach.