Review – City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of StairsAuthor: Robert Jackson Bennett

Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books

Publication Date: 02 October 2014

Length: Novel (420 pages)

Format I read: Library Hardback


A compelling and action-packed novel that manages to make you think about some serious issues at the same time. Part murder-mystery, part fantasy, this is pure fun. It’s set in the city of Bulikov, previously the centre of magic and divine powers, now a wrecked shell of a land. When the mysterious divinities that ruled Bulikov and the surround provinces were destroyed large parts of it disappeared with them and the city folded in itself.

Now staircases to nowhere and strange merged buildings linger and the once powerful land is ruled by its former empire. We’re following a spy sent to investigate a murder who finds herself stumbling into far more secrets about the past of this divine city, and her own family history, than might be healthy. Oh and there’s an old love interest, a naked Norse bodyguard wrestling with a giant squid, and enough tea to float a small navy.

The story largely revolves around Shara Komayd who arrives in the city as a lowly diplomat, but is in reality a highly trained spy and descendant of the man who killed Bulikov’s divinities a few generations back. Her old friend Dr Efrem Pangyui has been murdered and as she looks into the mystery she begins to find that it’s all twisted up with the death of the divinities, a political campaign to rebuild the city, and the political power, of Bulikov, and maybe, just maybe, some hints that those gods aren’t quite as dead as previously thought.

This is one of those books that just drags you into the action and gets you hooked immediately. There was so much intrigue, political machinations, and interesting personal histories to find out about that I really didn’t want to put this book down. The world that was drawn got me thinking a lot about imperialism, conquest and devolution – it felt something like a twist on the British Raj era but with more magic and a reversal of fortunes. There’s a lot of tough ideas to get your teeth into, but Jackson really doesn’t make it feel like heavy going. Sure, it’s a simplified idea of a real world so it won’t have the same weight but that doesn’t mean that the difficult thoughts are skipped over. Shara and various other characters spend a considerable amount of time discusssing and thinking about imperialism and empire, the responsibilities and problems of political power, and the ethics of religion.

And the characters, oh, how I loved them. The book features not one but at least three significant female characters who are all over thirty (or fourty maybe?) and in positions of power and responsibility. Fantastic. Plenty of guys too, don’t you worry. And all of them felt well developed, with interesting back stories and character traits.

Rating: 4 out 5 stars. A thrilling romp of a read but without that certain something.

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