Book Review: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of StairsCity of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 1

Publisher: Crown (September 9, 2014)

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I’ve never actually read Robert Jackson Bennett before City of Stairs, despite owning several books by him (and I can see there’s my copies of The Troupe and American Elsewhere on my shelf right now, glaring down at me balefully as if to ask, “Why haven’t you read me yet?”) So though the name of the author is familiar to me, I really had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that this book’s description was tantalizing in its promise of an atmospheric, immersive fantasy world, with a touch of the otherworldly and bizarre. As it turns out, City of Stairs is all that and more, being a sophisticated and cerebral cocktail of a multitude of different genre elements, including magic, mystery, and philosophy.

Years ago, magic was lost in the central city of Bulikov, then known as the Seat of the World, when its Divinities were killed by a Saypuri hero known as the Kaj. Throwing off the yoke of the Continentals, the Kaj led the rebellion to victory, conquering their conquerors and passing the Worldly Regulations which outlawed the possession and use of divine objects and miracles, even the worshipping of the old gods. With the passing generations, Bulikov went from being a shining capital to just another colonial outpost of world’s new authority

The story begins with the murder of Dr. Efrem Pangyui, the visiting Saypuri scholar who stationed himself in Bulikov to study and document the city’s history to the outrage of the locals who are prohibited from doing so themselves. Enter Shara Komayd, officially there as a lowly ambassador to smooth over matters, but she is not without her own secrets. A direct descendent of the great Kaj, Shara is really one of Saypur’s most accomplished spies, and she is determined to discover the truth behind the murder of the historian, who was also a very close personal friend.

First, let’s talk about the world-building, which is in a word: phenomenal. Admittedly, I wasn’t really convinced I was going to like this book from its first 50 pages or so. The story was slow to take off, but in truth, this had a lot to do with the author’s meticulous efforts to plunge the reader into the intricacies of his setting. Bennett has created many layers of context for this world and has left no stone unturned when it comes to achieving the effect of a living, breathing, working society with the kind of history that Bulikov’s people have endured. Everything from politics to religion has been touched upon, giving us a clear idea of the mood of the city.

The plot didn’t gain momentum until around after the first third of the book, but I can’t say I ever lost interest in reading, being completely captivated by the complexity of the world. Before the Kaj, the six Divinities of the Continentals each had their own worshippers, living by the rules and ideologies of the god they followed. After the Divinities were killed, Bulikov was also devastated by an event known as the Blink, causing chunks of the city to disappear or warp and resulting in a section filled with giant staircases that went nowhere, but which gave the book its title. There’s a lot of history here, not to mention the magic and the miracles described in this novel, which are just so creative and unique.

I also adored the characters. I have a feeling Shara’s companion, the unforgettable and indomitable Sigrud will be a clear fan favorite for many after reading this novel. However, I have to say the soft spot in my heart must go to Turyin Mulaghesh, the soldier turned governor who after years of dealing with the problems and instabilities and Bulikov just wants to be transferred to a quiet little coastal outpost where she can settle down and spend her days lying on the beach – ambitions be damned. But don’t let that fool you, for she is a force to be reckoned with. I love how this novel features two strong, spirited and over 30 women at the forefront, and they are just two of the many great characters in this refreshingly diverse cast.

It was hard to stop, once the story got going. The initial murder mystery deepens into shady political dealings and conspiracy, which ultimately leads to an incredible climax and final showdown that unfortunately was over far too quickly and neatly. But what an experience it was. And yet, City of Stairs is also about so much more than just the thrills and suspense. Bennett dives into some heavy topics here, exploring the significance of religion, attitudes regarding sexuality, and the ramifications of persecution and oppression.

Like I said, this was my first taste of Robert Jackson Bennett’s writing, and I am impressed. This really is an excellent novel, and it deserves to be a hit this year. I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised to hear there will be a sequel, since this book is the sort that would open doors to many great and interesting possibilities, and its world simply begs to be further explored. Highly recommended. This is an enjoyable fantasy that also makes you think.


A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. My thanks to Crown Publishing!


25 Comments on “Book Review: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

  1. oh that’s nice, I always adore book anout magic and dinitities. They’re so fun! And you make me curious about the characters too, I want to discover them. Thanks for introducing me to the book!


  2. I wrote a review for this book in March. MARCH! I have wanted to post it every single day since. Instead I have just shouted at people to READ THIS BOOK WHEN YOU CAN.

    Sigrud is awesome, but Sharra can not be overstated; just loved the way she worked her way through the story. Blessed to have read this already because it means I can read it again!


  3. I just finished this one last night . . . I need a day to two to gather my thoughts, but I really enjoyed it. Like yourself, I thought the world-building and mythology was astounding, and while it took me a long while to warm up to him, Sigrud really came into his own near the end – not only did we finally get his backstory, but boy-oh-boy did he ever get to play the epic hero.


  4. I’m sorry, the protagonist is over 30 AND SHE’S ALSO A LADY SPY?! Does anything more even need to be said?! No, it really doesn’t. 😉 Happily it sounds like City of Stairs delivers on more than just the characters. Lady spies, unforgettable male characters, AND epic world building? Definitely getting pre-ordered.


    • Yeah I know, a female character over 30 who is a talented spy, and another older kickass lady who is a soldier-turned politician. I loved the two of them!


  5. This and Age of Iron are going to be my next books. I didn’t read your review – which I’m sure is brilliant and won’t contain spoilers – because I don’t want to know the first thing about it. I love Bennett. All his other books have been really good and original. Excited now!! 😀


    • I understand, sometimes I like to go into a book knowing NOTHING and just wait to be surprised. This could be one of those books…you’re going to be in for a treat 🙂


  6. I had to skim this one, b/c I’m planning on starting this ANY day. HIGH hopes, Mogsy. Between you and Nathan, I have incredibly high hopes for this book 😉


  7. Ooh, this sounds good. I haven’t read anything by this author and I’m always happy to find new fantasy authors! Thanks for a great review, Mogsy. And so glad the world building is good plus the characters sound so good. I’ve added this to my September book list.


  8. Yay! Another fantasy book that need to be checked. I’ve never heard of the author or of the book, however, but I think that this one is going to be up on my alley. Phenomenal world building + awesome characters+ unpredictable plot= WIN. I really don’t mind slow books just as long the as the story is interesting enough to hold my attention.

    I don’t know but I just noticed that slow beginnings are common in fantasy books especially EFs not that I’m a fantasy expert. Happy that this one really worked out for you, Mogsy. And now I am tempted to add it on my TBR pile.


  9. Pingback: Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs Review Round-Up | Chaos Horizon

  10. Pingback: Book Review: City Of Stairs | Thoughts and Pens

  11. Pingback: Book Review: City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett | The BiblioSanctum

  12. Pingback: Book Review: City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett | The BiblioSanctum

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: