Wednesday, May 27, 2015

WEDNESDAY REVIEW: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennet


Title: City of Stairs
Author: Robert Jackson Bennet
Genre: Main: Epic Fantasy – Sub: Urban Fantasy/Spy Thriller/Murder Mystery
Price: $7.99 (ebook) $11.02 (paperback)
Publisher: Broadway Books
ISBN 978-1939398086
Point of Sale: Amazon
Reviewed by: Carlyle Clark

An atmospheric and intrigue-filled novel of dead gods, buried histories, and a mysterious, protean city--from one of America's most acclaimed young fantasy writers.

The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions—until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world's new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself—first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it—stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.

Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov's oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country's most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem—and that Bulikov's cruel reign may not yet be over.

Jackson’s once miraculous and now half-shambled Bulikov is the occupied capital city of the once mighty Continent, which now, seventy-five years after the Great War, squiggles under the thumb of their conqueror, Saypur. The oppression of the citizens of the Continent, along with their half-sullen/half-sorrowful identity permeates the narrative.  Their religion is forbidden, as are any works that mention it or any symbols related to it. Since their religion was utterly entwined with their history and culture as it was based on their allegedly idyllic life under the six Divinities the people of the Continent are aggressively denied a foundation on which to build a new identity by a Saypuran regime that paradoxically denies the validity of the Miracles of their religion while living in fear of them.

Into this noir feeling morass of a brilliantly imagined world, shuffles Shara Thiviani, a supposed junior diplomat who is actually a spy and ace trouble shooter for Saypur. In political exile since a mysterious scandal in her youth at an Academy for the privileged, Shara’s performance has been exemplary enough that she feels one more success will earn her the abilty to return home.  Solving the murder of the brilliant and enigmatic Efram Pabgyui, Shara’s mentor in the study of history and antiquities (her original choice of occupation before becoming a spy), should be enough.  If only it were a simple murder case.

Shara’s investigation quickly uncovers that Efram had been investigating how the Saypur  won the wasr against the Continent, specifically how a legendary Saypuran hero had actually managed to kill two of the Continents Divinities, a crucial detail that has inexplicably become lost. Shara then learns a wealthy and powerful Continental whose aid she needs to unravel the mystery is none other than her former lover at the Academy who was the other half of the scandal that shattered both their relationship and drove her into exile. Can it really be a coincidence that she of all agents was assigned this case? Seeing as how Shara’s boss, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, is also her aunt, and famed for her cold-hearted scheming and manipulative ways, that’s highly unlikely. In fact knowing her aunt as she does, it’s more plausible that the woman chose Shara specifically because she thought she would fail.

Fortunately, wily Shara is not without resourceful allies, chiefly her sidekick, a large mysterious northman named Sigrud whose competence and  fighting prowess are awesome. She also earns the trust and aid of the salty female ex-general and current governor, Mulgalesh. But true to Bennet’s quality characterization Sigrud and Mulgalesh have agendas of their own  . . .

Although the pace for the first half was measured, City of Stairs held my interest. Along about the middle the pace picks up as all the groundwork began to come to fruition. At that point the novel becomes a page-turner.  I highly recommend City of Stairs for those who favor: plots based on philosophical questions, stories focused on developing complex characters and relationships, and exploring the entwinement of culture and religion in addition to the way occupation affects the occupied, over wall–to-wall action.

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Reviewed by Carlyle Clark for Heroines of Fantasy.