I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Published by Broadway Books on September 9th, 2014
Years ago, the city of Bulikov wielded the powers of the Gods to conquer the world. But after its divine protectors were mysteriously killed, the conqueror has become the conquered; the city's proud history has been erased and censored, progress has left it behind, and it is just another colonial outpost of the world's new geopolitical power. Into this musty, backward city steps Shara Divani. Officially, the quiet mousy woman is just another lowly diplomat sent by Bulikov's oppressors. Unofficially, Shara is one of her country's most accomplished spymasters-dispatched to investigate the brutal murder of a seemingly harmless historian. As Shara pursues the mystery through the ever-shifting physical and political geography of the city, she begins to suspect that the beings who once protected Bulikov may not be as dead as they seem-and that her own abilities might be touched by the divine as well.
City of Stairs was a wonderful surprise; I was immediately sucked into a masterpiece of world-building and canon. This book and its universe was entirely unique, unprecedented, rich and groundbreaking. Yet in spite of that — or perhaps more accurately, due to that– this book suffered from having more interesting backstories and themes than its main plot.
This books takes place in the war-ravaged city of Bulikov (which bears ethic and cultural resemblances to Slavic nations), after being conquered by the Sapyuri (resembling Arabic or South Asian cultures). What can be gathered by this war is that the Saypuri were originally slave people, and when their freedom was won, there was a massive slingshot effect where instead of normalizing for peace, there was massive retaliation. This retaliation lead to the murder and destruction of Bulikov’s divinities, and the destruction of their extremely religious culture. With the divinities dead, any form of their existence – symbols, religious ceremony, even mentioning the name of a divinity, is forbidden and punishable by death.
The people of Bulikov are massively resentful of the oppression, not only for the spiritual and cultural destruction, but the physical damage as well. Bulikov was holiest of holy cities, and had in large part been built by the gods. When these gods were destroyed, every structure they had contributed vanished, along with all signs of their magical presence in an event referred to as “The Blink”. This leads to Bulikov being a decimated place of gaping nothingness, and stairways that lead nowhere. This was the world I became so deeply entrenched in, and where I wanted to read more! But this was just the backstory.
Enter the historians. Our main character, Shara, and her mentor Efrem, are Saypuri with access to the Bulikov history, which the native people are banned from reading or exploring. When Efrem is murdered for his involvement, Shara takes over to find out what her beloved mentor might have uncovered, and discovers that all is not what is seems in Bulikov.
This book gave me massive historian feels. I empathized Shara’s devastation when precious artifacts are destroyed, and I deeply respected Efrem’s insistence on exposing the truth, rather than curtailing to what patriotism demands. Most importantly, the thematic warning of the dangers of a myopic understanding of the past deeply resonated with me. It is a historian’s duty to present the truth of the past, the whole, messy complex truth, and as strongly as it stood at the core of these character’s being, it stands in mine. This was something worth fighting for, and I understood their motivations so clearly.
Beyond inflaming the historian inside, this book also had some seriously insane moments that fleshed out the academic attitude with adventure. Getting naked to fight giant squiddymonsters, or getting high out of your gourd to wage war on magical demons are definitely not common occurrences for someone working in public office or in academia, but there it was! And without giving too much away, I just can’t resist mentioning that Kolkan reminded me of World of Warcaft…
“YOU ARE NOT WORTHY! YOU ARE NOT PREPARED! WHERE ARE MY GIFTS?! AMATEURS!!!”
I have very few complaints about this book but those I have were pervasive. There was a pacing issue with most of the writing – action scenes lacked literary intensity, and although incredibly visual, beautiful imagery was provided, evocative urgency would have really sealed the deal. The reveals were also not very shocking. Aside from those that were unpredictable due to lack of canon knowledge (like random magical monsters), you could generally see them from a mile away. This didn’t impede my reading pleasure, but it certainly wasn’t surprising me.
Overall, I’m going to be praying hard that a prequel to this book is released later on, because I’m pretty sure it would be one of my favourite fantasy reads ever.
Want more thoughts on City of Stairs? Check out Fry’s review too!