Saturday, April 4, 2015

Book Review: City of Stairs

It's a little hard to tell but I think I've made some good progress on my books-to-read list which is always a nice thing. I've been able to knock off some stuff I've had on the list for years and found that by now my library systems have a surprising number of 2014 books. Not everything (they seem to have gotten in Children of a Hidden Sea and then promptly lost it) but enough things that I always have something nice to read these days!

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Decades ago, the colony of Saypur rose up and overthrew their oppressors and now it is the city of Bulikov where the people are discontent and seething with anger. Shara has long studied the city and goes to it when her colleague is found dead and she has every reason to believe that it's more than a simple murder. Nothing in this city is simple anymore, not when it was once protected by gods and the deaths of those gods can still be felt in it's very landscape.

While I'm not sure this on my favorite books of 2014 list it was certainly one of the strongest and easiest to recommend books from 2014. It's a fantasy but it's a little hard for me to put a clear genre label on it since it defies how fantasy is normally categorized. With gods and mircales involved you can't say the story is anything but fantasy but it's not high fantasy (which involves quests and heroes of all shades) and despite being set in a city it's not really an urban fantasy either (it lacks the tattoos and sexy vampires). Lots of people think it's silly/dumb to try and categorize stories like this anyway but, coming at this from a reviewer, I'm much more likely to recommend a book people like/other people will be able to find a book they like on their own if they can immediately compare it to what they already like. I did like the tone and style of the setting quite well and I'm happy that the book seems to be getting a lot of good buzz since I'm afraid no one is going to find this review without already knowing that this book exists. 

 Tangents aside, what I actually liked the most about this story wasn't the physical setting but the cultural/religious setting, I loved what Bennett did with the idea of gods and the eventual explanation about how they worked. It was different and yet brilliantly perfect, I've caught myself thinking about other books and applying this same logic to them lately before realizing it, he probably isn't the first person to look at religion/magic/power in this way before but I certainly can't think of another story that's done it! I think the last time I walked away form a story with that kind of impression about gods was Megan Whalen Turner's works but where her stories seem to be impressed by ancient myths this take on religion seemed very modern and like it would work very well in some English classes.

Another surprising thing for me was when I went to double check a few things before reviewing and only then realizing that Bennett is actually a male author. The majority of what I read these days (in YA and even adult fiction) is by women so when I read a book with a rather nice female lead I never considered that it could have been by a guy. Shara is a great balance of stubbornness and charging in without thinking with contemplative and waiting, combine that with the fact that there is a romantic, sexual even subplot in the story that only lightly focuses on the intimacy (in it's biggest scene it actually came off a little bit tragic and funny, which I think was the intended reading) then, well, I'm just not used to guys not using a female character as a way to indulge in weird fantasies! (the other kind of fantasies) Its a nice surprise and makes me a bit more interested in Bennett's other works, if he can create equally interesting characters and settings, especially while balancing the issue of power on multiple levels, then that is certainly something I want to read more of!