Apr 232015

city of stairsCity of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett

Synopsis: In a steampunk setting, an Agatha Heterodyne-esque government agent investigates a professor’s murder and finds herself wrapped up in political machinations, and the cultists of a long-dead god.

Book Review: The first chapter was boring and unnecessary, the rest of the book is great!

The thing that most stands out about this novel is that the characters POP! In lots of books I forget most of the charecters very quickly after putting them down, but this cast jumps off the page and stays distinct. It was as startling as the first time I played a cell-shaded game. The protagonist (Shara) is half Agatha Heterodyne, half Sherlock Holmes, and has all the drive and wits you’d expect from such a character. Her bodyguard/secretary (Sigrud) is the absolute epitome of the manly badass. He rarely talks, never shows emotion, delights in killing, and murders the hell out of anything that threatens the protagonist. The two major supporting characters are an incredibly charming gay gentleman that is almost the internet persona of George Takei, and a tough-as-nails military colonel who you can’t help but see chomping on a cigar and sneer all the time, even when she is not in any way doing those things on the page. And the villain… oh MAN do you hate him! It is utterly delightful!

City of Stairs also does an excellent job of using our cultural background to mold our expectations and uses that to drive our emotional response. The story takes place on “the Continent”, an analog to the British Empire just after its peak. Shara is a “Saypuri”, which is an obvious analog to India. They have just thrown off their British oppressors, so we are entirely on their side! We are for the underdogs, especially when they’ve just won their freedom from an oppressive British Empire (we can kinda relate to that…). Screw the colonialist pigs! We even get vivid descriptions of the atrocities committed during their subjugation. But… the Saypuri’s want to be secure, they don’t want the threat of being reconquered, so they’ve invaded the Continent and taken it over, and now they are the ruling class. They literally murder the Continent’s Gods, which required a genocide of all the people who have some of the God’s blood in them. This, of course, happened nearly a century ago, no one alive now is responsible. And it was necessary, because the Gods are weapons of mass destruction and cannot be allowed to exist in enemy hands. But… all of a sudden our love of and identification with the Saypuris doesn’t feel quite so good. And this wouldn’t have worked out nearly as well if Bennett hadn’t made the initial British/Indian connection so well up front.

On the down sides, Bennett makes things a bit too easy for our heroes. Shara doesn’t feel like she’s ever at the end of her rope and on the edge of losing. Sigrud is so bad-ass that when he went up against a multi-ton eldritch monstrosity single-handedly I never worried he might lose. The tension never got very high.

Nuance is also a bit lacking in the book. The themes of security vs compassion weren’t really explored in the way that you’d imagine a story that involves a choice between mass-murder and leaving Nukes in the hands of your enemy would… it’s barely touched on at all. The big theme (which I won’t mention due to spoilers) is literally stated by the characters, several times. That’s not very artful. Likewise, a lot of the foreshadowing is done too heavily, so that the reveals aren’t surprising because the author did too good of a job telegraphing them. And everyone that isn’t a main character feels rather flat. Much of the time it felt like the Continentals were caricatures of religious fanatics rather than a real society of people.

But… did I mention the story has Gods?! I absolutely love any story with real, honest-to-goodness created-the-world style of Gods. That’s a huge button for me, and gets major bonuses in my book. There’s tons of wry humor, and quite a bit of action. And on top of all that, at least once the protagonist goes into full-Sherlock Rationalist mode, where she lays out all options in her mind, dissects and evaluates them, then goes with the one she sees as most advantageous. I really wish that sort of thing had happened more. While the book has a few problems, it’s a fantastically fun read. If you enjoy adventure, smart characters, and a bit of ambiguity, you’ll love this. I certainly did. Recommended!

Book Club Review: This is a tough call for me. On the one hand, it’s a really fun book, and (almost) everyone really enjoyed it! Just talking about the cool parts, and the few flubs, was a good time in itself. And there was some level of conversational grit, what with the religious fanatics, realpolitik, and vibrant characters. But the really interesting stuff was mentioned once and then not developed. There was a lack of depth to the conversation. Which is OK too, sometimes it’s good just to read something fun and chat, but it’s not ideal for a book club.

I would say, if you’ve read some heavier stuff recently and need a break just to enjoy and relax, this is a good book, and in that case Recommended. But in a one-on-one comparison with good-for-book-club books… not recommended.

Puppy Note: I’m not sure what the Puppies would think of this book. All the characters of importance are women. The three men are the bodyguard (with very little agency), the gay friend, and the villain. The protagonist is brown-skinned, the book implies that colonialism is a bad thing that we shouldn’t be proud of it, and nearly every religious character is portrayed as a violent fanatic. If I was a Puppy trying to classify a book as SJW-propaganda, I would claim that this one ticked all the important boxes, and that if it received any recognition it would because it propagated the SJW-agenda rather than because it was a good book.

But… this book is fun. It doesn’t dwell on any of these issues. It has a lot of humor and action, fantastic characters, and it’s a fun read. I would think it’s something that the Puppies would love! Isn’t this what they say they’re trying to bring SF back to? So if it didn’t get awards/recognition, would they claim that this was proof that fun, non-pretentious stories are being snubbed by the ivory-tower elites?

I am intensely curious as to how Brad/Larry/Vox and their fans are going to interpret this novel, which seems to fit them perfectly in some ways but oppose them in others. I’m going to go out on a limb and make a prediction. Despite the substance of the book, I get the feeling that the tone is what matters to the Puppies most. And, to me, this book reads like something that appeals to liberal/left sensibilities. I don’t think the Puppies will find this book enjoyable.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  One Response to “SF/F Review – City of Stairs”

  1. I wasn’t aware of this book at all, but I recommend Bennett’s earlier book American Elsewhere. Fairly pulpy and probably too long, but immensely enjoyable in a number of ways.

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