First up, I need to apologize. It took me a long long while to finish this book. It was not because I did not enjoy it, it was because I simply did not have the time. I love this book, I think it is a fantastic tale of fantasy and mystery.
I love the way the book is written and how Robert Jackson Bennett is able to craft such realistic characters that have unique traits and are incredibly likeable.
The book features one-of-a-kind fantasy elements and with each page, you discover and learn something new about the world. The author finds the perfect balance between informing us and keeping the reader in the dark. We are fed the exact amount of information we need to know, in order to (re)spark our interest. We are then kept on our toes for a while until another piece of information is revealed to us.
This makes the book rather hard to put away but also difficult to understand, which is another reason it took me so long to read.
I recommend it to every fantasy fan out there and also fans of mystery thrillers, because the book is basically a fusion of these genres.
I’ll rate this book an 8,5/10. With realistic characters, actual Gods and a magical premise, City of Stairs makes for a fantastic read that keeps you wondering until the last page.
Robert Jackson Bennett is a US-author, born in 1984. He won many prizes including the Shirley Jackson and the British Fantasy award.
Publisher: Broadway Books
Date of release: 2014
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The book follows Shara, an undercover agent, who is sent to Bulikov to investigate the murder of Dr. Efrem Pangyui. At her side is Sigrud, a Dreyling who is a great fighter and aims to protect Shara. Soon, she discovers that she is not being told everything. She joins forces with military commander Mulaghesh and soon finds herself questioning whether the Gods that have been thought dead for hundreds of years, actually are dead or if they wait for an opportunity to raise once more.
In an epic final battle, Shara manages to kill the Divinities Kolkan and Jukov, who fused together, making her a hero. She sets sail to Ghaladesh, her home town, to tear down the old structures and reform Saypur and its relationship with the Continent.
And that’s it. We are left on this cliff-hanger, wondering if Shara’s plans will succeed or if her powerful aunt and prime minister manages to get rid of her. For simplicity’s sake, I will not explain all the vocabulary, because, if you are reading this, you should already be familiar with all those terms.
One thing I really liked about City of Stairs, is it’s incredibly realistic and likeable characters. Robert Jackson Bennett did a fantastic job creating his characters. To me, they seemed very legitimate, having both strengths and weaknesses, and acting according to their motivations and intentions. The dialogue was crafted beautifully and went hand in hand with the respective characters.
By using the form of the personal narrator (meaning the story was told from the view point of Shara, including her thoughts and feelings), we were able to get a glimpse into Shara specifically, which allows the reader to further sympathize with her and her situation. We practically get access to Sharas mind. We get to feel with her, when she is happy, scared or simply does not know what to do next.
I liked the decision to not use a first-person-narrator for this story. Because of the sometimes strange and abstract topics and descriptions, it would be much harder to fully grasp what is happening. The personal narrator gives as much more perspective of what is happening around Shara, while maintaining some level of insight.
And with that, I am already touching on another reason, why I liked this book as much as I did. It has to do with the storytelling. Obviously, storytelling is everything and I think Robert Jackson Bennett did a great job, keeping up the suspense, while moving the story along. I hinted at this in the introduction. He managed to find a balance between giving the reader just enough new information to process while not revealing the whole plot. He does this in two ways: One, we learn the information at the same time as Shara does. This makes perfect sense as the reader basically is Shara. So, whenever she discovers something new, we get to know it as well. This is rather basic, which is why the second method is much more commonly used and also a lot more interesting. The author sort of strays from the personal narrator. He gives us a previously unknown piece of information but then does not help us make the right deductions from this. Obviously, Shara knows much more than the reader does, and Robert Jackson Bennett uses this to his advantage by simply informing the reader that “Shara finally understands” or that “Suddenly, everything became clear to Shara”.
This is so much more powerful, as it a) hypes up the reader, because we know that Shara just had a breakthrough, while b) keeping us in the dark about what actually happened. This technique is used to great effect in the book and it really helped to keep the tension high, while the story progressed.
I must admit that I felt like the author crammed a lot of revelations into the last maybe 50 to 100 pages of the book, which can be overwhelming and confusing. To me, this was not a huge problem because I felt like I saw it coming. Robert Jackson Bennett carefully placed hint upon hint, which increases my suspicion and leads me very close to an actual realization. So, when he revealed that Kolkan and Jukov fused together and both were alive, it made sense, because I already suspected something like that. Another example would be when Shara followed this mysterious woman into the forest, I grew suspicious of who this woman might be. Therefore, when it was revealed that it actually is the Goddess Olvos, it was not as much of a surprise. This is a very important factor, in why this boatload of revelations work.
The last point I wanted to mention is about Robert Jackson Bennetts concept of Gods. I think he created a really unique and fascinating concept of Gods and their peoples living together in a kind of cycle. The God gains its power from the people who believe in him, giving the people a lot of power in return. This mutuality, which not all Gods in the story acted out as much as Olvos, challenges our perception of a God as a kind of supervisor, making the rules that everyone else must follow. Granted, Kolkan for example wrote a ton of edicts for his people to follow but even Jukov said that he needed his people as much as they needed him.
Finally, for my closing thoughts and my recommendation. I loved this book. I think it is very unique in its topics and descriptions, which is why I would recommend it to fans of the fantasy genre. But it is much more than that. It is also a mystery thriller and it even tried to fit in some horror elements, which did not really do anything for me personally. I stumbled upon this book, while researching the weird fiction genre and I could definitely see fans of that enjoying City of Stairs, as well.