Let’s take a tour through the streets of the fabled city of Bulikov, where gods lived, where they created and destroyed, took care of their followers and inevitably issued edicts. Bulikov, city of grand spires and beautiful gardens, shining like an immense jewel of the world. A seat of gods, a place of power, a source of pride – and hubris – for the people dwelling on the Continent.
If you were to walk through the streets of Bulikov now, you wouldn’t see any of the wonders. You’d see a forest of decrepit, half-ruined buildings, hundreds of thousands of stairs ending in the thin air, as if cut by a gigantic scythe, and a sea of poverty, resentment and anger.
Because the gods weren’t omnipotent, omniscient or immortal. They were killed, and with their destruction came the destruction of everything they have ever built. Bulikov is now a gaping wound in social memory, a festering boil waiting to burst at the slightest pressure. And guess what? That pressure is easily applied, from many directions at once.
There is a forbidden cult following a long-gone god. His believers think he never died, only was imprisoned by other gods who had thought him mad. And if other near-all-powerful beings think you mad… Well, something must be really wrong with you, that’s for sure.
There’s a religious and military conspiracy trying to bring back the good old times when the Continent, with the help and guidance of its gods, ruled the world. Some things can be achieved only by prolonged, bloody conflict, but there are things that can come about only with stealth and ruthlessness – as I’m sure both bin Laden and Obama would have confirmed. This conspiracy is small but vicious – and they have a viable plan for mayhem.
There is also general social restlessness and resentment stemming from the simple and undeniable fact that the gods were killed by a bunch of invaders from Saypur, their erstwhile colonies and the main source of slaves. And now the former slaves rule over their masters, not as harshly as they have been ruled, but not too kindly either. Sanctions, limitations, restrictions, more than a bit of petty revenge and a feeling of moral and racial superiority abound – let’s just say that in the world created by Bennett karma has a way of coming back.
There is, of course, a dead body. This time it’s one of a university professor, a famous scholar known for his research on the deceased gods and the cultural heritage of the Continent. As the only person in the world authorized to study the history of the Continent he had access to some top secret sites – like the out-of-bounds, unmentionable warehouse containing miraculous items, the only legacy the gods had left behind. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the list of people wanting to kill him for one reason or another is quite long indeed, but, astonishingly enough, nobody is willing to take the blame just yet.
Where there’s a case, there must be an agent. A very empathically not James Bond–type this time – Shara Komayd, a bespectacled, unprepossessing woman in her mid-thirties, not overly fit and armed only with a sharp intelligence and a barbarian. She’s a decent lead, with a past and, at least at the beginning, an amount of knowledge not overly bigger than that of the reader – which makes it easier to relate to her despite a bit of the old predestination crap. But in most scenes together she’s overshadowed by a much more interesting supporting character, that of a late middle-aged female general Turyin Mulagesh – the one truly original protagonist in not too big a cast.
The barbarian, Sigurd, is as barbaric as they come. But thankfully not all about him conforms to the pervading genre stereotype. Besides being a huge, hulking Viking with a collection of scars and some impressive fighting skills, Sigrud is also a reticent, sarcastic observer of the social conundrums inevitable in a place like Bulikov.
There are also monsters. And miracles. A bit of magic and some ontological questions of religious nature also survived and beg to be employed once more. Not many, not any longer, as the remnants of the world of old are slowly dying out, but what remained can still be quite impressive.
The plot is tight, without too many obvious holes, although some plot devices should have been left buried deep where they were found, and gotten rid of once and for all, for the good of everybody involved. I won’t spoil any details, maybe someone will still be surprised, but one of the main twists of the plot made me shake my head with exasperation. All this work and trouble – for this? Scratch that. I still shake my head when I think of it, even now while writing a review.
That is, however, my main point of grievance. Because the rest is really quite good. The characters are likeable, even if somewhat stereotypical. They are interesting enough to make the reader root for them in all their strange adventures, be it a fight with a sea monster on and in an iced-over river, a fire in the tight confines of a warehouse, an air ship battle or discoveries in the department of localized miracles.
The worldbuilding is decidedly the strongest point of City of Stairs. Bulikov is fully realized and alive, complex and coherent at once, reminiscent of Adro from McClellan’s The Powder Mage Trilogy and Mieville’s The City and The City (actually, a review of that book should come here soon). Some reviewers likened the Continent to czarist Russia and Mughal India, but for me it is a decidedly Western culture, some alternate United States or Great Britain which after an unthinkable collapse of their civilization had been subdued by one of their former colonies or subjugated countries: India or Pakistan, or Iraq. And that was a big selling point to me, the sudden reversal of traditional cultural stereotypes – especially when the truth about Continental gods was finally revealed, confirming my suspicions ;). There are even some nice illustrations of Bulikov on Bennett’s webpage.
Actually, there is much more than just a passing resemblance to McClellan’s world: from the idea of gods as immensely powerful but not omnipotent figures through the application of the complex process of divesting the world of their influence to the psychological development of the main protagonists and the way they complement each other. A sure and obvious inspiration, but I wouldn’t consider it anything more – to Bennett’s credit.
City of Stairs is well written, fast paced and full of action. But it were the moments of respite, the smaller, intimate scenes, that really sold that novel to me. Bennett still has a lot to learn about structure and precision of writing, about less telling and more showing, but he’s clearly got a knack for it.
City of Stairs is Bennett’s debut, and a first installment in The Divine Cities trilogy. It had been nominated for a bunch of awards, but to my attention came through Adrian Tchaikovsky’s recommendation. I will definitely read the second installment, City of Blades, and if you enjoyed McClellan’s The Powder Mage trilogy, you’ll most probably enjoy Bennett’s creation as well.