I’ve been trying to read Robert Jackson Bennett’s books for some time. He’s got one of the most entertaining Twitter feeds around—a blend of absurdist, weird, nonsensical , and occasionally on the edge of off-color humor (I’ll sometimes find myself laughing at a tweet while thinking, “I don’t dare retweet this”). But there are all sorts of writers I like in other venues whose fiction just doesn’t do it for me.
Bennett writes a variety of books in a variety of genres, and is a two-time Shirley Jackson Award winner and winner of the Sydney J. Bounds Awards for Best Newcomer. Yet I’m not much of a horror or gothic fan outside a few classics, and thus his previous work was not quite up my alley. I’m terribly particular about what I read: lush writing, secondary world or seriously far-out science fiction, strong worldbuilding, dynamic characters. I need to have it all for it to work for me.
So when I heard Bennett was writing a secondary world fantasy—City of Stairs—I was intrigued. When early reviewers compared its themes to those in my own new epic fantasy, The Mirror Empire, I was doubly intrigued.
I know the moment the book finally had me, and it wasn’t what you’d expect: it wasn’t the complex history of oppressors becoming the oppressed. It wasn’t the incredibly fascinating idea of the death of real gods, whose tangible influence over the world meant that when they died, pieces of the world did too. It wasn’t the constant, creeping wonder that hid in every twist and turn of the city. No, for me, it was the simple moment when I finally met the story’s primary protagonist. It was reading the back of the book, knowing we were going to be following a super spy/assassin, and—after the point of view character mistakes her hulking “secretary”/bodyguard for her—she is described thusly:
It is a Saypuri woman, dark-skinned and even smaller than Pitry. She is dressed rather plainly—a blue coat and robe that is noticeable only in its Saypuri cut—and she watches him from behind enormously thick eyeglasses. She wears a light gray trench coat, and a short-brimmed blue hat with a paper orchid in its band. Pitry finds there is something off about her eyes… The giant’s gaze was incredibly, lifelessly still, but this woman’s eyes are the precise opposite; huge and soft and dark, like deep wells with many fish swimming in them.
The woman smiles. The smile is neither pleasant nor unpleasant; it is a smile like fine silver plate, used for one occasion and polished and put away once finished.
Great stories, stories you share, remember, stories that last—achieve the enviable trick of making you fall in love just a little bit with one or all of the characters, no matter how morally good or bad or delightful or off-putting they may be. We don’t fall in love with perfect people. We fall in love with complex ones. I realized, in that moment, that I was already a little bit in love with Shara the spy, and I was already willing to follow her on this incredible journey through a wondrously weird and surprising world. Everything she did after this simply proved my initial feeling.
The world Bennett has built for Shara to navigate in her quest to find out who killed her mentor and friend is equally worthy of affection. I found myself both delighted and fascinated as every layer was slowly unpacked. Here is a world where the gods were real, and now the gods are dead. Their miracles were eradicated with them. Or are they really dead? Because for a world whose gods are supposedly dead, an unprecedented number of their miracles are still active…
City of Stairs very much reminded me of the work of Paula Volsky, with themes of colonialism and power, hierarchy and rebellion, and meditations on the true nature of gods and divinities. Bennett’s prose and control over his story one-up’s Volsky’s, here, so if you are a fan of her work, you’ll find much to love in City of Stairs.
As someone with a deep and abiding interest in war, colonialism, power, genocide, oppression, and a love of bad-ass monster killing scenes, City of Stairs was just the right mix of awesome for me.
I bet it will be for you too.
Buy it. Read it.
You may even fall a little bit in love with it.
Kameron Hurley is the author of the new epic fantasy The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy, comprising the books God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Year’s Best SF, EscapePod, The Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.