City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett (Broadway, Sept 9th, 2014)-For many years the city of Bulikov was protected by the very Divine beings that subjugated and enslaved the rest of the world, but eventually, they were killed, and Bulikov is a crumbling shadow of its former self, where the sick and crippled are left to fend for themselves while the rich still enjoy creature comforts. The city that once held the fate of the world in its considerable hands is now at the mercy of other nations, mainly the Saypuri, who now occupy Bulikov. When Dr. Efrem Pangyui is beaten to death, it causes a sensation, even if it’s not a huge surprise. He’s been sent, ostensibly, to research the history of Bulikov, and Bulikov’s native sons resent his ability to delve into a history that they are no longer allowed to know. Shara Thivani, in the guise of a junior diplomat (but who is really much more), is sent to investigate his death, bringing her “secretary” Sigrud, with her. What was he involved in that caused someone to resort to murder? Shara soon finds herself seeking the help of polis governor Turyin Mulaghesh, who will happily help for her own rather surprising reasons. What follows is…well…pretty much pure awesome. Yep, I’ve been trying to not just do a series of fangirl squeees with this review, followed by “just buy the damn book.”
So, let’s break it down. Shara, obviously, is more than just a junior diplomat and she’s very, very well versed in the history of the Divine creatures that once ruled Bulikov. These ladies and gents made it a very powerful place indeed, but a place that tended to wield its power in not so great ways. As Shara digs into Dr. Pangyui’s death, she starts to come across evidence that point to the possibility of a few of the gods being, um…not so dead after all. This doesn’t really surprise Shara, because one of the gods has been MIA for a while and was gone before the Kaj (think larger than life adventurer and godkiller) took the remaining behemoths down nearly 300 years ago. Shara is very, very good at what she does, but she also suspects that her handler is not quite on the up and up, which causes her to reprioritize her investigation a bit. A blast from her past hopes to become her ally, but she’s not all that sure he can be trusted either. One person that she can trust is Sigrud, her, erm “secretary.” Let’s just do away with that secretary title, because Sigrud is no secretary. Sigrud is a Dreyling, a giant among most men, and his ability to go berserker when the occasion calls for it comes quite in handy for Shara. He’s a man of very few words, but is a quiet, very strong presence in Shara’s life, and not only is their friendship one of the best parts of this book, but his past, which the author slowly unfolds throughout the book, is like something out of a hero’s legend. I completely fell for Sigrud, can you tell? Also on my fave list is Governor Mulaghesh, who provided no-nonsense, dependable support for Shara. Mulaghesh’s unabashed sexuality wrapped in an oh-so-tough demeanor was a delight. The book opens with her and you get a lot of her (sometimes sarcastic) internal dialogue about the state of Bulikov and its extremely divided citizens.
Bennett covers some pretty weighty issues in City of Stairs: class division, discrimination, politics, the nature of faith, and oppression. However, he’s managed to wrap up all that heavy stuff in a wondrous mystery/adventure that’s, frankly, one of the best things I’ve ever read. Shara and Sigrud are a dynamic duo, and it’s nice to see a partnership between a man and a woman that doesn’t end up between the sheets. They’re true friends, and it’s a friendship based on hard earned trust and hardship. Sigrid had some of the very, very best scenes, and Bennett’s ability to make me laugh in the midst of a bloodbath is just one of the many things that I adore about this complex, riveting, and just plain fantastic book.
I cried when I finished it because it was over (and cried a few times while reading it, too.) Yeah, I’m gushing and I unabashedly admit that this book was perfect for me. Robert Jackson Bennett keeps outdoing himself, and if you only read one book this year (as if, but you never know-things happen), make it this one.