Imagine yourself in a place called the Continent – a land graced by the presence of the six gods themselves; deities who live and walk among their chosen people for a thousand glorious years.
In this world, the earth is merely a canvas upon which the gods paint reality to their liking, making it more beautiful, more hospitable, and crafting works of wonder that rival nature’s innate splendor. Some of their creations are for nothing more than a godly whim, but others are there to protect their chosen people, ward off illness, feed them, house them in safety, and allow them to live in magnificent cities alongside deities come to earth. The most glorious of these abodes being the gods’ capital city of Bulikov, from which they ruled the world – including an island of slaves called Saypur, who had no god of their own.
What a glorious age it was, a time of paradise on earth for the Continent! But then seventy-five years ago, something horrible happened: the age of gods came to an end! A man known only as the “Kaj” rising up in Saypur, creating a weapon capable of killing the gods, methodically executing each of them, and thereby unleashing upon the Continent “The Blink.”
The children of the gods saw their world end in “The Blink.” Not only were the six divinities destroyed but with them instantly vanished all their creations. Cities disappeared. Mountains crumbled. Fertile lands turned to dust. The temperate climate turned cold and snowy. Paradise died. Chaos erupted. Starvation was born. Plagues ran rampant. Poverty reared its ugly head. Death’s pale visage loomed over all. It truly seemed that every person on the Continent would surely perish.
But before complete annihilation occurred, the Saypur forces took control. Their Kaj had come before as the divinity destroyer, but now that the Blink has taken its tole, his people return to the Continent as conquers. They take over the land. Divinity of any kind is outlawed. Words, symbols, or deeds relating to the vanquished gods are punishable by the harshest means possible. The Continent survives, but it is now a backwater filled with broken people, full of darkness, lost dreams, and hopelessness – slaves who were once the chosen of the gods.
As City of Stairs opens, the world is changing once again: civilization writhing in the birthing pains of an industrial revolution. And the Continent is caught up in this evolution, as two groups vie with one another to lead the journey into this brave, new world. One wishing to restore the old ways of the gods, and the others wanting to abandon the past and forge a new future.
Naturally, all this societal change causes a destabilizing pressure on the Continent – one that regularly erupts into violence, many times against Saypurians. And so when noted Saypurian Historian Dr. Efrem Pangyui is murdered in the old capital city of Bulikov, important people take notice.
One of these observers is Shara Thivani, great granddaughter of the Kaj, operative for her Aunt Vinya, who heads up the Saypur Foreign Affairs Ministry. Shara is a young woman banished from home due to a political act of conscious who has spent most of her adult life on the Continent accompanied by her bodyguard Sigurd, a barbarian Dreyling. While not knowing Dr. Pangyui for very long, Shara greatly admired him, counted him one of the few friends she has on the Continent, and after hearing of his fate, she voluntarily travels to Bulikov determined to uncover who killed him and why.
Naturally, as Shara begins turning over stones, she finds that this is no simple murder nor a random act of violence by a subjugated race. Rather it’s a complex puzzle with pieces carved from ancient history, the mystery of the Kaj, the destruction of the Continent by the Blink, and the conquest by Saypur. Involved in it all may even be a man from her past, who now finds himself as the leader of the Continental party for change in Bulikov. And while Shara tries to safely journey through the political minefield she has inadvertently wandered into, she soon discovers that lurking behind all these things might be a secret so dangerous that it would not only destroy her family but also the world Saypur rules over!
After finishing City of Stairs, all I could say was wow! It is by far one of the most impressive writing performances that I have had the privilege of reading. Robert Jackson Bennett has crafted such a uniquely original tale incorporating epic fantasy, urban fantasy, mystery, political thriller, and mythology that it is really breathtaking, and for that, he deserves the accolades this novel will surely earn him.
And as much as the story deserves praise, the world building itself also must be recognized. Here, Mr. Bennett has created a land filled with magic. There is the modern magic of an industrial revolution Saypur, filled with ships, guns, and the bureaucracy of a modern nation, while behind it is the lingering glimmer of the gods’ magic, highlighted by miraculous objects, glimmering portals, and vanishing stairs – though each is difficult to find anymore. And while some might say all this world building slows the story down, I can’t agree because by the time Mr. Bennett was done with it I was so fully committed to the story that I simply flew through the last half of the novel.
Truly, City of Stairs is a genre-blending novel that succeeds where so many others have failed. In it, Mr. Bennett has created a lush world, dripping with mythology and history, with intriguing characters, romantic tension, political mysteries, and more than a few action scenes. The book is philosophical. It is entertaining. It has a great cover. And it is a novel sure to be on most readers Best Books of 2014 lists.
I received this book from Netgalley and the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank both of them for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.