ARC Review: City of Stairs – Robert Jackson Bennett

9780804137171_b5222eARC provided through Edelweiss in exchange for fair review.


A densely atmospheric and intrigue-filled fantasy novel of living spies, dead gods, buried histories, and a mysterious, ever-changing city-from one of America’s most acclaimed young SF writers.

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.


Okay. So this is going to sound a bit strange, but truly, I mean it as high compliment:

This book felt like historical fiction.

There. I said it.

Oh, the element of the Divine does make it notably fantastic, but this world is so incredibly well developed that I feel like if Europe had taken a different course, this could be a history text, as opposed to a novel. This book easily has one of the most developed mythologies, and in turn, histories that I can remember in quite some time. And that’s a good thing. I’d absolutely love to dig into the world more and just read the texts and explore. The concept of the Divine City is just too fantastic to not want to go play in.

Speaking of history, can I say that I love that our heroine was able to do what needed to be done because she studied history. Instead of being content to ignore it like so much of Saypur, she reveled in her access to it and it gave her the knowledge needed to understand the world around her. Awesome.

I also like the idea that Bennett plays with the thought of is religion such a good thing. Both sides of the argument have their pluses and their minus and he does a good balancing act of never really making a judgement, leaving it up to the reader to decide.

And finally – and really, it’s kind of amazing that this is a finally. The characters are all awesome. Shara is Hermoine-like in her intelligence and her knowledge, but never comes off as a know-it-all. Sigrud is absolutely awesome and a good take on the ‘stoic bruiser’ archtype. There really aren’t any wasted characters here. They all feel distinctive and I like that all the antagonists all feel believable and avoid feeling over the top or too cliched.

As I sit here typing, I’m trying to think if there is anything negative I want to say, and I find myself scratching my head. I’ve got nothing.

This is probably the best book I’ve read since The Waking Engine and it will surely wind up on my best of list. Just like that book, it may be a bit Your Mileage May Vary, but if you’re looking for fantasy that’s genuinely smart and not just action or sword and sorcery. Give this a look. It shouldn’t disappoint.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: September 9th

2 thoughts on “ARC Review: City of Stairs – Robert Jackson Bennett

  1. That’s what I love about Bennett, his books are genre-defiers πŸ˜€
    I’ve only read City of Stairs from him so far but I’ve bought all his other stuff. He originally crossed my radar with The Troupe. And I so agree, there isn’t a character in here I didn’t like πŸ˜€ He already has a sequel planned, based on Mulaghesh! So reading that as soon as I can get my hands on it.

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