Fantasy literature often evokes images of fire breathing dragons and spell slinging wizards. Not anymore! Modern practitioners of the genre have been challenging its conventions, presenting to readers with ripping yarns of all sorts and kinds. Those who still equate “fantasy” with “medieval castles and magics”, should make a trip to a bookstore, where modern fantasy novels are waiting to defy your expectations.
In fact, if you are looking for a fantasy novel that is NOT about wizards, dragons and medieval European castles, then allow me to introduce you to a book - City of Stairs. This book, written by Robert Jackson Bennett, became the finalist for three awards in 2015. It is also the first installment in a trilogy known as “The Divine Cities”.
A night train brought new arrivals to the city Bulikov, the City of Stairs. From the carriage's door emerged a peculiar duo, who stepped into the morning chill. Of the duo, one is a slender, harmless looking woman. A pair of glasses rests on her nose, and the brown skin distinguished her as a visitor from the Saypuri Republic. Next to the Saypuri woman stood a colossal man, one-eyed and scar-faced, his yellow hair and pale complexion marked him as a Dreyling, a wild man of the north.
The woman introduced herself and her giant companion as Shara and Sigurd, a pair of lowly diplomats on a cultural exchange mission. In reality, Shara is an accomplished spymaster, who came to Bulikov to investigate the murder of a gentle historian. As Shara peeled back the layers of mystery, she unmasked a conspiracy that may shift the geopolitical balance between her country and the Continent.
My thoughts on this book:
City of Stairs is a slow burner, and it took a while for me to warm up to this book. The opening chapter, set in a courtroom, was boring and slow (even its characters were yawning in boredom). It was not until the second chapter, when the author suddenly unleashed his power of storytelling. This is when the story began to grip me. It's world was fascinating, and its characters were vividly portrayed.
The world in this book, though fictional, elicits czarist Russia and the Mughal empire. The worldbuilding is intricate and detailed. This is unique and refreshing, it sets City of Stairs apart from most fantasy novels, it does not follow the formula of a pseudo medieval European theme. The most interesting aspect of its world, I found, was the magic system. What's so interesting about it? The hallmark of fantasy, is the inclusion of supernatural elements in its worldbuilding; Jon Snow came back from the dead, Gandalf can throw fireballs, and Aslan's roar can shake the very earth itself. If there is no supernatural, then it is not a fantasy book. The question, where did the “magic” come from?
In City of Stairs, people could perform supernatural deeds, known as “miracles”, which were sourced from the gods. In this book, many gods once existed in its world and every nation on the Continent had their own god, All except an island people known as the Saypuri, who were godless. With the power of the gods, the Continental nations enslaved the Saypuri people. After centuries of oppression, the Saypuri finally rebelled against the Continent and killed every god with a secret weapon. After the gods died, the miracles ceased, and the Continentals lost their vantage. In their place, the Saypuri people became the strongest of all nations due to their command in superior technology. This is the premise for City of Stairs. Not only did this book explore the tension between magic and technology, but more interestingly, it asks the question:
If miracles came from the gods, then where did the gods come from?
This question is indeed, a central mystery of the book, and I leave would-be readers to discover the answer on their own. Otherwise, City of Stairs also explored, how censorship can affect human relationships in a society. I found this theme very interesting.
City of Stairs combined the best of fantasy, detective fictions, and spy novels. It has two protagonists, Shara and Sigurd. Both of these characters defy the archetype of fantasy. In her mid thirties, Shara was an experienced spymaster, and a knowledgeable historian. She possessed little martial prowess, but she wielded her deductive powers as a master detective. It was a lot of fun to follow Shara's journey and watching her solve the murder. It was equally as intriguing to see her playing a game of cunning and politics. Unlike most heroes in fantasy, Shara is not the stereotypical, young hero destined to save the day. No, Shara is a flawed character. She made mistakes and paid for it, and she had regrets in her life. This realistic, well-rounded portrayal of Shara made her character memorable and likable. The second protagonist in this book is Sigurd. Upon the first glance, this 7 foot giant, grizzled and one-eyed, appeared to be a stereotypical barbarian in fantasy. As the story unfolded, however, readers would quickly discover that Sigurd is not an oaf. This silent, and apparently simple character soon revealed himself as an individual with a mysterious background, one with a fascinating history. It should suffice to say, while these two characters are likable, but you will want to find out more about them after the book is finished.
Admittedly, City of Stairs started slowly. The early parts of the book took its time to build the world and establish the characters. This also means, this book may find more appreciations in the eyes of the adult readers. It is worthwhile to persevere through the first 100 pages nonetheless. Once this story gets going, the book shifted into a higher gear, and one would feel the draw to read one chapter after another, until the adventure reached its end. I think this is a thoughtful, and unique fantasy novel. If you like fantasy but you want to read something different, then make sure to check out this book.