City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
As a novel of ideas, the novel is absolutely rich and fantastic.
But when it comes to the writing, I had to complain a bit about the choice of tropes. I'm wasn't certain that a mystery was the absolute best medium to propel the main tale, but when the book is said and done, I can't fault how it was wrapped up. Everything made perfect sense. I found that I was caught up in my own prejudices even as I was reading it, and the journey had changed me in the end, which is strange enough, because we're not talking about great human quirks that plague us. It was just the fact that I was reading a truly superior fantasy that thought it was a murder mystery.
It turned out to be a sneaky novel that paraded about like a police procedural in the beginning but wind up being a god-slaying action adventure and political coup. What the hell? Seriously, I was pretty ambivalent during most of the first third of the novel. I really enjoyed the brilliant worldbuilding, but the operative angle and murder mystery was just okay. If it's intent was to slow me down and take the view, it did, but I didn't need it. I was already completely hooked by the world.
And then something happened. At first it was Sigurd. And then it was Shara and the conspiracy, the hints of killed gods coming back.
One thing anyone ought to know before reading this book is that it has a really fantastic magic system. As a mystery and eventually a political novel, it turns out pretty awesome, but as an epic fantasy that masquerades as a modern land of industry after the assassination of all the gods that could bend reality to their will, the novel's pretty freaking fantastic. The fantasy compels and twists and delights.
When the action starts, it ranks up there as a heroic legend full of all the classic signatures, outperforming so many of my own favorite fantasy classics that I actually put the book down to cheer for a while.
The two main characters made this novel shine, heavy mashups of tons of tropes, and yet it wasn't a mess. I felt their personalities eventually blow across the pages like a storm.
Sigurd was a Queequeg. He was an unkillable tortured hero pirate and sidekick, and lost prince and a godkiller.
Shara was the transforming naive government functionary detective historian setting reluctant foot into national politics and fighting injustice while also happening to be a god-killing great-granddaughter of a tortured godkiller that brought about the technological supremacy of Saypur so many years ago.
Truly, I loved how complicated these two were. Their mashups were delightful.
But the question is: How does anyone transform such humble mystery beginnings into a nearly hopeless epic battle against truly reality-warping gods?
I'm at a loss to explain. (It's that good.) Read it for yourself to experience the journey. ;)
Mr. Bennett has successfully built a set of stairs into the sky, one step at a time, but unlike Bulikov, these stairs actually GO somewhere. Bravo!
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