There’s a scene in the middle of Robert Jackson Bennett’s 2014 City of Stairs when an accident occurs at a repository of magical things, and magical things escape, and magical havoc sort of happens, and I was reminded of that scene from Ghostbusters when the evil, party-pooping EPA agent forces the maverick, but well-intentioned ghostbusters to shut down their certainly, most definitely, totally safe nuclear-powered ghost storage unit, and then all the crazy ghosts escape and it’s totally the EPA’s fault, and definitely not the fault of the ghostbusters for storing those ghosts in an uncertified nuclear receptacle in the first place. And then Slimer gets out and slimes some ladies on the street, and then takes a cab to go see Cats. Right?
My memory is fuzzy, but yeah, screw you, EPA agent guy and your stupid anti-nuclear ways. You are definitely an appropriate villain for an eighties movie while the ozone is depleting. A rusty, nuclear-powered receptacle in the middle of Manhattan is okay. Egon said it was cool. You should listen to Egon.
Anyway, nothing like that happens in City of Stairs. It just reminded me of it and I realized how truly irresponsible that movie is.
Lots of great things have already been said about City of Stairs, prompting the typical hype-driven curiosity from this reader. Despite being unlike most of the fiction I currently read, its synopsis hearkens to a time when I did read more fantasy, tugging at a long buried desire to recover those days of easily suspended disbelief, since dampened by an evolved sense of adult cynicism. But those days are long gone, and to expect anything out of a magic carpet ride besides sitting motionlessly on the floor is a failure of my expectations as a reader, and not the failure of a good story. City of Stairs is just that– a good story. I’m not blown away like its many fans, but it’s good. It’s cute. It’s exciting. It’s a week later and I can’t remember the main character’s name. *Googling*
Ashara Thivani, a.k.a. Shara, a diplomat of the Saypuri empire, goes to Bulikov, a.k.a. “The Divine City,” or “The City of Stairs,” to investigate the mysterious murder of her dear mentor, Dr. Efrem Pangyui, an expert in divine historical studies, which is a prohibited discipline on the Saypuri-ruled continent. With her grizzled secretary Hagrid—I mean, Sigrud,– Shara’s investigations reveal more than the motivations behind Efrem’s murder. In a Divine City, where the Divine have either been killed or vanished, and religious practice is prohibited, someone is working to reawaken the mystical powers of the lost deities.
Upon reading the synopsis of City of Stairs, with its emphasis on history, and the notes of the murdered historian used as clues, one might expect the depths (and footnotes) of an imaginary past, like what we love in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Look elsewhere. With its references to tense peace between nations with a wobbly imperialist past, replete with an undercurrent of civil unrest, one gets the feeling that this might be a Miévillian-style puzzler, a la The City & the City. It’s not. And with its discussions about long dead deities and their violent conflicts, one might expect a Gaiman-flavored mythological darkness. But you won’t find that here, either. Instead, readers can expect the tone and style of Harry Potter, with its unquestioning comradery, stumbled-upon good luck, and wavering, but charming good guys, but with more violence. Harry Potter and the Professor’s Hypocritically Collected List of Contraband Magickal Artifacts, let’s say.
And like Harry Potter, it’s a fun, magical fantasy romp—the kind you might recommend to your mom to read over the holidays, as long as she’s okay with a homosexual male character (who only acts romantically toward females during the narrative, so no biggie) and murdered deities (they aren’t the Judeo-Christian god, so it’s okay!). The characters have fun, quirky interchanges with one another, the action scenes are unique, vivid, and even intense at times. And it all wraps up with a satisfying, heartwarming ending that you might see coming from a mile away but your mom probably won’t.
But you, Dear Reader, are not your mom. And you might need more. Some things might niggle your overdeveloped genre muscles.
For one thing, it might feel predictable, although not necessarily in a boring way. Bennett plays a bit heavy-handed with the foreshadowing, and major conclusions can be drawn about the mysterious nature of his world and his protagonist long before the big reveal. For myself, I managed to accurately predict his biggest revelations at the 70% and 80% points of the novel, and long before the actual unveiling of this key information. Part of the fault lies with Bennett’s best strength—his story is methodical and precise, and his plot points fit together like big chunks of laser-cut brick. They fit so well together, the big picture can be detected early on. This might bother people who prefer a more challenging or surprising read, but the final action sequences are fun enough to distract from the afore-acquired spoilers.
In addition, much of the tale is driven by dialogue that rings false considering that many of the main characters have long histories with one another. In reality, these characters have no need to remind one another of “that last time you did this…,” or “remember who you’re related to…,” or “we talked about this already…” In one particular scene, Shara prepares an elaborate Saypuri feast while she TALKS THROUGH her mystery solving thinking process to her comrades. She slices, dices, purees, and simmers while putting the whole story together for her patiently hungry friends. Then, her friends dine, but she doesn’t because SHE ISN’T HUNGRY. This entire scene took me completely out of the narrative because it felt so false and forced and cutesy.
And why she gotta be cookin’? Was she out of yarn to knit socks?
But that’s the essential tone of this novel, and that’s where it lost me. It’s a comfortable, magical fantasy ride that shallowly addresses mildly sensitive topics, without really disturbing the status quo. In the end, we have a ball-busting, fearless, intelligent female diplomat, but she also cooks perfect meals, barely eats any of it, and she needs a grizzled man-beast (with no will to live) to protect her from dangerous enemies, even though she can inexplicably do magic, sometimes, but not at other times, and we aren’t sure why. And many situations occur because Shara or Sigrud happen to be in the right place at the right time, hence the stumbled-upon good luck with which we are familiar from YA magical fantasies.
Overall, the story itself is a fun, smooth read that devoted fantasy fans will adore. Despite its almost 500 pages, I found it to be a quick, inviting tale, with interesting character interactions (if you can ignore the funnily modern lingo employed by these citizens of this vaguely devolved, semi-Victorian era). And, really, the action scenes are the best part, with a couple of real nail-biters. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a magical fantasy story is just that– a magical fantasy story, and shame on me for wanting more. (Although it does invoke the question, why bother to spin a fantasy based on themes of imperialism, oppression, mythology, gender, and sexuality, if you aren’t going to do something truly progressive or subversive with it?)
Do I recommend this to most people? Yes. Do I recommend this to most readers of this blog? Probably not. Is it amazing? No. But it is ideal for mainstream readers looking to graduate from the Rowlingverse.
Psst, people who have read this book: [Did we ever find out where the stairs go? When we see the “old Bulikov,” I feel like Jackson neglected this key world-building moment. Or did I miss it?]