City of Stairs was the other fantasy from 2014 that I’ve been hearing universal praise for (the first was The Goblin Emperor, which I loved), so I was pretty excited to read it too. Some reviews described it as “epic fantasy” (it’s not what I think of as epic), so I was expecting a wholly different style of book, but once I was able to get into it, I ended up liking it.
The book is set in Bulikov, the titular City of Stairs, which was once the seat of a great empire with the active help of its gods. Now the gods are dead, and Bulikov has been colonized by its former Saypuri slaves, who remember every detail of their slavery all too well. When one of Saypur’s foremost scholars is murdered in Bulikov, Shara, a highly skilled spy steps in to investigate, and finds that the gods may not be as dead as everyone thinks they are.
In some aspects, this book reminded me of The City & The City by China Miéville – but that’s probably just the surface level similarities of the plot being propelled by a murder investigation in a weird/unique city. Bulikov is certainly weird; there are miracles in evidence everywhere, such as the sunrise showing through the impossibly high city walls; the city is covered with ruins and half-structures (and stairs!) from when the laws of physics reasserted themselves over the reality the gods shaped; the people that live there aren’t allowed to know anything about their past or their erstwhile Divinities, but their colonial overlords can study them all they want.
The worldbuilding in this book is excellent, it’s just as atmospheric as the book’s title suggests. I liked that the cultures of the Continent and Saypur seemed to be inspired by Russia and India, since we don’t see a lot of that with fantasy. Colonialism and oppression are strong themes, and they’re not treated simplistically; we get realistic foreign policy and consequences thereof. The Divinities are masterfully crafted – they’re just unfathomable enough to be awe-inspiring, but are still relatable. I particularly liked the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, which were usually only obliquely related to the plot, but really developed the world.
The main thing that knocked City of Stairs down a couple of notches was that some of the characters weren’t that great. Shara wasn’t a very compelling protagonist (although, she is the first protagonist I’ve encountered that actually looks like me – she’s described as a small brown woman with enormously thick eyeglasses) because she doesn’t have enough to lose. She cares about some things – history, for example, but I never got a sense of who she was and why she does what what does. There are terrific stories about people that are stuck in a rut regaining purpose (Paladin of Souls, for one), but I didn’t really care about Shara enough to root for her and her course of action at the very end seemed to come out of the blue. Her flashbacks were a lot more interesting because it shows her at a time when she’s more vibrant and someone I’d actually invest in.
Also, Sigrud, Shara’s sidekick, seemed to have no personality, and his arc over the book just fell totally flat for me. I know the author can write better characters (unlike China Miéville, for example, whose characters are always cold, and his books are all about the worlds/ideas), because there are some in this book – Shara’s irrepressible and conflicted college boyfriend and current Bulikov businessman/politician, Vohannes, and the tough-as-nails ex-military city governor, Mulaghesh.
Plot-wise, I was a bit skeptical of the whole “murder investigation” thing (I’m not a big fan of police procedurals), but luckily, the other mysteries of Bulikov soon overshadow it. There’s plenty of action, and everything comes to a satisfying conclusion. City of Stairs is a good book overall, and it’s certainly a fresh perspective on fantasy.
- “The Goblin Emperor” by Katherine Addison
- “Karen Memory” by Elizabeth Bear