Review: City of Stairs

Posted: August 29, 2017 by in Books We Love (5/5 single_star) Meta: Robert Jackson Bennett, Fantasy

This is another one of those authors that I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time now. Long time. Yeesh. Ever since I read Steve’s review of The Company Man. I’ve even bought two of this guy’s books at a second-hand store without even looking at the blurb since reading that review, but I just hadn’t worked any of them into my reading queue yet. Ugh, and I’m so regretting the fact that it took me this long. Because, you see, there are authors that write decent books, and there are authors that write good books, and then there are authors that make you never want to miss anything else that they ever write. Period. Like Abercrombie. Like Reynolds. Like Abraham. Like Erikson. And even though I wouldn’t say that Bennett writes like any one of these authors in particular, in reading this book I did find that he does have the chops to land himself in the same category of books as those storied authors: those of Books We Love.

CITY OF STAIRS (Amazon) is the first book in the Divine Cities series by Robert Jackson Bennett and has pretty much single-handedly put him on my list of favorite authors. I need to read all his stuff. Now. So do you. Seriously, use that link, buy his books, and then come back and read this. I’ll be fine with that.

The Continent was the center of the world, and at it’s center the city of Bulikov, the City of Stairs, from which the six divinities ruled, provided for, and reigned over their people. With their divine help, the forces of the Continent conquered the known world, enslaved them, massacred them. But then the Kaj of Saypur found a weapon unlike any other and rose up and killed all the Divinities and their scattered miracles. In the vacuum of power that remained, came the Saypuri government, which has now overthrown their previous oppressors and censored the Continental’s history. Nothing of the divine is left for them, and in the wake of the loss of everything that they knew and relied upon, the Continentals are now slaves to those they once ruled.

Shara Komayd, a Saypuri spy, and her accomplice Sigrud, a massive Dreyling of the north country, come to Bulikov to solve the murder of Dr. Effrem Pangyui, a university professor studying the history of the Continentials. What follows this setup is a story rife with deep conspiracy, forgotten history, and startling discoveries as Shara searches out not only why Dr. Pangyui was killed, but why he had come to Bulikov in the first place.

What Bennett has made here is a brilliantly deep and nuanced world that is exactly what fantasy should engender. In other words, nothing like medieval Europe. It’s kind of like an epic fantasy story in an urban fantasy setting. The three countries of interest reminded me most of India (Saypur), Russia (The Continent), and Sweden (Dreyling Republic), and how often do we get anything in the fantasy genre that hits those types of societies? This was such a breath of fresh air.

Characterization was absolutely spot-on. Bennett writes his characters with detail and motivation that give life and heart to this story. It’s mostly told from the perspectives of Shara and Sigrud (oh man, Sigrud is AWESOME). Although, there are a few others that have some minor POV time, most prominent among them, Turyin Mulaghesh, a retired Saypuri general that is the standing governor of the city of Bulikov. Frequently, I’ll complain when I see things like super-minor POV characters, but Bennett writes them so well that they naturally fit into the flow of the story and in no way distract from it. They are almost like bit-parts that are there to fill in and enhance the plot and story of the main characters, and in that I have to applaud Bennett for including them. Really good job of breaking one of my rules. ๐Ÿ™‚

If there was one failing of the book, I’d have to say that it would be the minimal surrounding detail. There’s definitely some, but Bennett writes very dialogue and charcter-deep -centric, and so those external details can sometimes feel lacking. However, the absolute volumes of history and gravitas that the world has completely makes up for it. It’s been a while since I’ve come across a world that has felt so fully realized. Something on the order of Erikson’s Malazan series to be sure, but as should be the case it’s also very much glacial in its portrayal. As in, you’re given a little and the rest is implied. You get this base knowledge from the setup, and then the author opens up more, and then he opens up even more. There are layers to the reveal of the history of this world that are absolutely, amazingly well-done.

Not only is CITY OF STAIRS stunningly unique, it's solidly told and meticulously built. It was so much fun, that I immediately ran out and got the next one.

And much as was reported in Steve’s review for The Company Man (EBR Review) that I read, seriously, way too long ago, everything in the novel was set up just so dang well. While the pacing was fairly slow, it was engaging and deliberate, and all came to a head at the end in a very Brandon-Sanderson-avalanche kind of way.

Not only is this fantasy novel stunningly unique, but it’s solidly told and meticulously built, and was so much fun that I ran out and immediately got me the next one. Watch for that review to come very soon.

  • Recommended Age: 16+
  • Language: Some strong language, but not a lot
  • Violence: Lots of violence, but not much more
  • Sex: A skipped scene, and a handful of references


  • bormgans says:

    I’d say stunningly unique is quite an overstatement. Lots of tropes and generic stuff in this book, and quite superficial at that too. Mixing genres is not the same as originality. Mixing has been around for ages, and ultimately, this remains firmly fantasy, not something new. For an elitist review blog, I’d expected a harsher stance.

    • Writer Dan says:

      Granted, while there are several individual ways in which this book is not “stunningly unique”, the book as a combined whole IS something completely different than I’ve ever read personally. Just because a book is firmly fantasy, or contains tropes, or has generic ideas within it also does not disqualify it from the ability to be labeled as unique. So, I stand by my statement, but thanks for your thoughts. We’re always happy to get a little discussion from our readers.

      Also, it might be of some interest to you or anyone else caring to read this: we’re “elitists” here because we have “awesome opinions”, not because we’re somehow better at determining literary elitism. Honestly, I don’t give a fig about the literary aspects of any story, be it in book form or otherwise. It’s all about the love for me. Does the story have it, or does it not? Anything else can go jump off a cliff. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • bormgans says:

        I can sympathize with everything in your reply, but I don’t understand why you guys claim to have “awesome opinions”.

        • Writer Dan says:

          Cause they’re ours. ๐Ÿ™‚ lol. Really I like to play it kind of tongue-in-cheek. It’s something to make us different. Catches people’s eye. Not necessarily because we have impressive credentials (though most of us do). Was stoked to see that you’re a fan of Daniel Abraham, by the way. That guy is so freaking awesome.

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