Robert Jackson Bennett made a splash back in 2010 with his dustbowl horror Mr Shivers and has consistently made good on that promise since. Now, with the ambitious City Of Stairs, Bennett has delivered what could be his best work yet.
Time was that the people of the Continent lived with their powerful gods, while those who lived in Saypur lived with the fact that they had no deities to call on. However, when the people of Saypur found a way to kill the gods of their neighbours the balance of power shifted. Now, the people of the continent live under the rule of their invaders and any mention of their long-dead gods is prohibited. Needless to say, this has not led to a harmonious co-existence, so when a Saypurian professor is murdered in the capital Bulikov, it’s an international incident.
Can government agent Shara and her giant bodyguard Sigrud find out who killed Dr Efrem Pangyui and, more importantly, why they did it? As their investigation deepens, they begin to realise that it’s not just resentment that’s stirring.
Bennett throws the reader in at the deep end somewhat. There’s no lengthy explanation of the fictional world in which the book is set; we’re given a date, 1719 and there are some resemblances to various locations in Asia and Russia but the author presents us with a full and functioning world and trusts the reader to go along with it. The city of Bulikov is richly detailed, full of idiosyncratic detail while feeling oddly familiar, but alien enough for the more outlandish concepts to believably exist.
Moving through the factions, traitors and allies is Shara. She’s a fantastic protagonist, whose determination and stubbornness are countered by a fierce sense of right and wrong and moments of surprising tenderness. She’s the strong anchor of the novel, often accompanied by the brilliant and enormous Sigrud, whose dry wit and tremendous capacity for violence make him an instant favourite. Whether it’s decimating the attackers of a drinks party or confronting…actually, that would be a spoiler. He’s brilliant, in any case.
The themes of forcibly repressed belief and blind fanaticism are potent, carefully presented and sharply discussed, making for an engrossing fantasy tale with a real weight to it. The balance between historical fantasy and murder mystery wobbles only very occasionally, and Bennett keeps things moving at a brisk pace. With nods to Neil Gaiman’s slumbering deities, Ursula K. LeGuin’s two-faced political schemers and China Miéville’s labyrinthine worlds, City Of Stairs is a compulsively readable and thought-provoking tale that confirms the author as one of the genre’s most exciting talents.