City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

November 11, 2014
City of Stairs by Robert Jackson BennettCity of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
Also by this author: City of Blades
Published by Crown Publishing Group on September 9, 2014
Genres: Epic, Fantasy, Urban
Pages: 464
Format: eARC
Source: NetGalley

Thanks to Crown Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

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An atmospheric and intrigue-filled novel of dead gods, buried histories, and a mysterious, protean city--from one of America's most acclaimed young fantasy writers. The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions—until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world's new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself—first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it—stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy. Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov's oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country's most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem—and that Bulikov's cruel reign may not yet be over. 

So, here it is. What seems to be the most talked about book of, if not the year, at least the season. I have had Robert Jackson Bennett on my list of authors I must try, and am quite glad to finally have read one of his books. That said, I also want to disclose that even though I love fantasy, the premise of this book was not as intriguing to me as many of his other works.

I am not typically that taken with crime books, so I have to confess it took about 5 or 6 tries for me to essentially get through the first scene of this book (it starts in a courtroom). I don’t know, I think its just a mental problem on my part. But eventually I persevered, and got past it. Keep in mind, I don’t suspect many will have any issues with that first scene, but for me, any book that opens in a courtroom seems to be at a disadvantage in maintaining my interest. But, luckily, the story does not stay in the courtroom, and as long as it took me to get through it, I have to admit there is a lot of really good information to be had from that first scene.

The world Bennet created is quite intriguing. A world where dieties have died (and their magic and miracles with them). The city of Bulikov was once the seat of power, where the power of the Gods was harnessed and used to make lives better for those in the Continent. It was used to make people healthier, make life easier, and, oh yeah, conquer and enslave. But, in a moment, everything changed. The Gods were taken down, and the world changed. In fact, it is against the law to even reference these deceased dieties, as the new rulers work to bury the past and wipe away any references to how things were before “The Blink”. Not only did the Gods disappear, but also their creations, and sections of cities.  Everything changed. For most, this was a devastating loss. The person responsible for leading this effort to destroy the gods was known as the Kaj. He was a leader from Saypur, a godless island of slaves, who were repressed and used for the benefit of the Continent. These people did not benefit from all the good that the Gods provided for the Continent. Quite the opposite, really. With the disparity between Saypur and the Continent, one can’t be surprised a trigger for change rose from Saypur.

Fast forward a couple of generations to get to our actual story. Our protagonist, Shara, is of Saypurian descent, and is sent to Bulikov to investigate the murder of a professor she both knew and respected. He had been studying the Divinities and trying to discover how the Kaj had been able to kill them. The investigation introduces us to a variety of characters: Shara’s old lover from the University, her imposing and mysterious Aunt who is also her boss. And of course, one of my favorite parts of this book was Shara’s bodyguard/sidekick. A typically quiet, but giant Dreyling, Sigrud is imposing and at times quite violent. Word of advice, don’t shoot Sigrud. Especially not with an arrow. Sigrud provided not just muscle, but also a form of comic relief in his over the topness.

I am really torn as to my overall impression of this book, which makes this review quite hard to write. I enjoyed it, the world became fascinating, and I did get quite pulled into Shara’s story. This is a book that got progressively better for me as I read, starting from making myself get through the court scene in the beginning, slowly becoming interested, to being captivated by the ending. So, do I rate it solely based on my impression at the ending, or do I weigh in the slow start? I suppose the payoff is more important than anything else, that’s the whole purpose of the book is to journey towards the end of the story. I suspect ultimately that this will not be my favorite of Bennett’s books. But I quite enjoyed so there’s no question that I will read others, to me that says something. Now, I’ll just have to decide what to try next.



  • Nathan (@reviewbarn) November 11, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    I don’t do a true year end best list because i hate ranking things but gun to my head I am thinking more and more this was my favorite book this year. Glad you enjoyed it more as time went on; hate to have seen you give up on this.
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    • Lisa (@TenaciousReader) November 12, 2014 at 8:09 am

      Yeah, you are not alone with that. I’ve seen so much praise for this one, and can see why, it just took me a little longer to get there 🙂
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  • Bob @ Beauty in Ruins November 11, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    I completely get what you’re saying about the slow start, but I found it more of an issue with a slow middle. It started out OK for me, but I found it began to drag and actually put it down for about a month. When I did pick it back up, it was really just to see whether it was heading for the DNF pile, but chapter or two later it completely hooked me, leading up to one of the most effective climaxes I’ve read in a long time.
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    • Lisa (@TenaciousReader) November 12, 2014 at 8:11 am

      Glad we both stuck with it! 🙂 The middle was a kind of slow for me too, just not as slow as the beginning.
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  • Lynn November 11, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    I can completely see where you’re coming from with the slow start – I didn’t find it a problem but I understand. I’ve read all Bennett’s other works – I think American Elsewhere has a somewhat slowish first half, again, I really enjoyed it but it’s not hot off the mark. I also really liked The Troupe – that’s a much more snappy novel and I love the creativity behind it.
    Lynn 😀
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    • Lisa (@TenaciousReader) November 12, 2014 at 8:13 am

      Maybe I’ll put The Troupe down as my next of his books then 🙂 Thanks! And I often don’t mind slower starts, but for some reason crime style books just typically don’t appeal to me. So a slow crime focused start ….. zzzzzzzzzz. 😉
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  • Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum November 11, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    I think I might have rated this book giving more weight to the impressions I had at the end. To be honest, the beginning was tough for me too, but then I generally also struggle with court scenes especially when I have very little idea of what’s going on. I really enjoyed the book though, and how it all eventually unfolded.
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    • Lisa (@TenaciousReader) November 12, 2014 at 8:15 am

      Same here. But when I was sitting down to write my review, I just kept thinking about how I struggled in the beginning. Especially since this one has been raved about so much. 🙂 Really glad I stuck with it though, and I do think it deserves the love it has received. 🙂

  • Danya @ Fine Print November 15, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    I’m a pretty big fan of the courtroom drama, so maybe the opening won’t be as tough for me as it was for you. Yet another reason to actually read this! You’re definitely right to call it one of the most talked about books of the year. As sad as a slow beginning can be, I prefer that to the slow or just plain bad last quarter of a novel. It’s better to slowly go uphill than go crashing downhill!
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  • Tabitha (Not Yet Read) November 17, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    You know I have that problem sometimes too. Deciding how to rate something based on the beginning or the ending – but personally I try to go with the overall – because even if I love the ending if the first 2/3rds of the book felt like a chore to get through and it took me much longer then I would have liked/anticipated then that definitely weighs in on the overall enjoyment because I sit and think (if I weren’t a “reviewer” would I finish this book? and if the answer is no then that definitely drops the rating) I want to enjoy the whole experience and not feel like I have to push through anything. Though of course one scene here or there being painful to get through is always understandable. I don’t think this will be the book that I start off my relationship with Bennett – maybe American Elsewhere (Nowhere?) instead. I’m glad you got past the court scene though and I like the sound of that sidekick…dude now I need to know why we don’t shoot him with an arrow.
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