Book Review: City of Stairs

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ashley | I have to admit, when I was approached by the publisher of Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs through Blogging for Books, I was a bit hesitant to agree to pick it up. It seemed like a heavy read and I wasn’t sure that was what I was in the mood for, but of all the books I have read across all the genres, I don’t often run into Gods – especially not Dead Gods – so the description was really intriguing and I have been itching for something new, so I figured I’d take a leap and give it a shot. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

City of Stairs starts off by thrusting you in the middle of a trial. You’re introduced to some characters and taught that acknowledging the deceased Gods in any way or form is illegal and trial-worthy. The places and people being introduce and the God’s that are mentioned are not anything I have come across before. This was obviously an introduction and more information was to come, but without any subtle context, it was a bit of an overwhelming start to a book, I had no familiar ground to plant my feet in and this made me slightly uneasy, which was what I was afraid of.

However, things soon took off in another direction as the trial was interrupted and news of a murder spread. Your typical detective novel quickly became more about unravelling the lost histories of the broken city that set the scene, which in my opinion was by far the most interesting aspect of the novel.

The mythology that Bennett created as the backbone for this story is impressive. I’ve always been mesmerized by mythology and Bennett has obviously constructed his very carefully. Sure, you have the general hierarchy of Gods, all very archetypal, but he’s developed each God into their own deities that could easily intermix with your standard Greek mythology. Bennett also uses this mythological platform to create a tear between realities, which is always a favourite topic for me to read about.

There is a mix of genuinely interesting characters beyond the Gods. Shara’s colourful background includes lots of secrets we discover along the way and I really like her; a seemingly reserved but cutthroat operative, it’s a nice mix. Her right hand man and huge brute of a bodyguard, Sigurd, is just as cutthroat and the chemistry and trust between the two is one of the better relationships in the book.

I was actually kind of surprised to find that there is also a heavy element of romance to this story. Shara of course has a boy from her past who pops up during all of this mess and begins to haunt her thoughts again. The rich and egotistical Vohannes Votrov is kind of Shara’s polar opposite. He is arrogant and ostentatious, a Continental that conflicts with Shara’s upbringing and beliefs that happens to end up in the middle of her murder investigation to provide just enough sexual tension to forgive him his faults.

I can’t decide whether I like all these different tangents – the murder, the romance, the mythology, the alternate realities, the political rebellion of the city, a chapter of journals, a section of telegrams – or if I find they over saturate and weigh down the story. They all work together to build this complex narrative, but I wonder if some of it was unnecessary to moving things forward or if it just made everything more complicated than it needed to be.

The one thing I definitely didn’t like was how randomly, the story would be told from some minor character’s point of view, someone we have never met before and will not read about after, but exists only to provide an outside perspective during a scene when no other character is around to do it. This happens at the beginning of the book and again at the end. It’s an interesting approach, but I just felt that it was so disruptive to the flow of the story – big things are happening, Shara is on the edge of discovery and then suddenly the focus completely shifts. It threw me off the story rather than providing more insight and eliminated the building excitement and suspense. I feel like there were other ways to convey this information without introducing new characters only for the blink of an eye.

I guess ultimately none of that matters though because the mythology is so rich and magical that I can forgive these lingering doubts and confidently say that I really enjoyed this book from start to finish.

City of Stairs came out Sept 9, 2014.

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