City of Stairs: Just Go Buy The Fucking Thing

city_of_stairsCity of Stairs is the tarnish on R2D2’s dome.

Which is to say that I watched Star Wars again the other day, and what struck me about it this time around is how grungy the technology is.  The droids and spaceships are battered, they need polishing, they have the feel of a world that’s been lived in long before you came along.  They have the feel of a place that’s been used to serve a purpose other than set dressing.

And City of Stairs, Robert J. Bennett’s latest book, does that with a whole goddamned city.

Characterizing a city is one of the trickiest things a writer can do, and I can think of only one other person who does it consistently; that would be China Mieville.  Most writers sort of hand-wave a city the way they do background characters, giving it a single, easily-memorable trait – this is the city of commerce!  This is the war city!  This is the poor city! – and, if you’re lucky, a couple of districts.  And the cities serve well enough as places for the characters to exchange witty dialogue before running out into the wilderness to hack at Sauron’s bones, but there’s always that feeling like they’re not real.

You could live in Bulikov. I don’t know that you’d want to.

It’s a city that has paperwork.  And history.  And a lot of cultures sloshing around in it. It feels as grungy as C3PO’s battered brass ass, and that is an accomplishment.

The short version of Bulikov is that once, it was a magical city ruled by several marginally-sane and powerful Gods, the seat of an empire that conquered much of the known world – and then a rebellion killed the Gods, and the city fell apart.  Literally.  A lot of the architecture in the town only worked because the Gods willed it, and so Bulikov – the City of Stairs – is now this dysfunctional and conquered province, and even mentioning that the Gods existed will get you hauled into court.  The people are proud and secretive and maybe just a touch resentful that their power’s gone, maybe just a touch relieved because the Gods could rip you to tatters and were not, shall we say, stable creatures.

And of course, there is a murder that triggers an investigation.  Because plot.

I don’t mean to make it seem like the city is all the book is about, because that would be boring.  Yet Robert J. Bennett is one of the greatest fantasy stylists I know of – if you haven’t read American Elsewhere, which was the first book I read after my heart attack and the perfect book to bring me back to reading after major surgery, then go purchase that – and he writes one of those rare books where I don’t really care what happens, I just lie back and bathe in his words, let them carry me along to strange and distant lands.

But there are characters, vibrant ones – Shara Thivani, the diplomat/spy, who is determined to find out who killed her old professor, and her stoic companion Sigrud.

Sigrud, I will tell you, is the breakout star of this fucking show.  Sigrud is… well, at one point he strips naked on an icy river and greases himself up in whale fat, gripping a harpoon, and what happened next was one of the highlights of my literary year.  You need a Sigrud in your life, you really do.

In any case, for me, I’ll be honest and say that though I loved it very much, this book didn’t hit the heights of American Elsewhere for me – but American Elsewhere was one of those sacred texts where I read it and it just seemed to sync up with some hidden broadcast signal embedded in my medulla oblongata.  City of Stairs, however, seems to be on a different and perhaps more popular frequency, where my Twitter-feed has been ignited with various cries of ZOMG SIGRUD and THE GODS OF BULIKOV and people frantically intellectually masturbating to his pantheon of broken deities.

And Bennett is one of those people where I can say, quite honestly, that you can pick up any book of his and have it be good, and City of Stairs seems poised to be his breakout hit.  So get it on it today.  It’s coming out next Tuesday.  I’d get it now, if I were you.

1 Comment

  1. ellixis
    Sep 5, 2014

    American Elsewhere had imagery and scenes that stuck with me even as I shuddered away from them in visceral horror. Not many books can do that to me. Bought City of Stairs, eagerly awaiting its appearance on my ereader.

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