Published by Broadway Books on September 9, 2014
I always look forward to reading a Robert Jackson Bennett novel. City of Stairs has all the hallmarks of Bennett's work, including a fiercely imagined world, offbeat humor, a thoroughly enjoyable story, and characters who, despite being from a different world or universe, illuminate what means to be human.
As a background to the complex plot, Bennett has invented a mythology. In the world Bennett creates, gods (recast as Divinities) once existed; the miracles attributed to them actually occurred. Prior to the Great War, Bulikov was a city of miracles, protected by the Divinities who occupied the Continent. Saypur was a Continental colony across the sea until a Saypuri named Kaj killed the six Divinities ... or so history records. After that, the miracles were locked away and forgotten.
Seventy-five years after Great War, Saypur rules the Continent. The people who inhabit Bulikov hate their occupiers, in part because the Saypuri have outlawed their divine symbols and all works that mention or acknowledge their Divinities.
The novel begins with the murder of Efram Pangyui, a Saypuri who was studying the Divinities and trying to learn how Kaj managed to kill them. Saypur sends Pangyui's mentor, a woman named Shara, to investigate. Shara, who does not want the Continentals to know that she is the great-granddaughter of Kaj, pursues mysteries and conspiracies that go much deeper than Pangyui's murder. Her investigation is impeded both by an uncooperative superior in Saypur and by Continentals who miraculously vanish on Bulikov's streets.
In addition to Shara, the novel's strongest characters include Shara's former lover, now a wealthy Continental; Shara's aunt, who operates Saypur's Ministry of Foreign Affairs while serving her own hidden agenda; and a rough-and-tumble Saypuri woman who is charged with governing Bulikov. The best character is Shara's assistant, Sigrud, who might be described as a philosopher-barbarian. Each character has a fully formed, carefully considered personality.
In many ways, the novel is allegorical. It can be seen as an exploration of leadership, of ruling by fiat versus leading by example. It can also be seen as a critique of religion, particularly religions that micromanage diets, dress, and sex acts, enforcing prohibitions by visiting inhumane punishments upon transgressors. Religious edicts that deny the experience of joy deprive their followers of a part of their humanity, while blind adherence to arbitrary rules, even when made by deities, is antithetical to progress and enlightenment -- or so the novel suggests.
Another of the novel's themes is the tendency of the oppressed to become oppressors once they seize power. Another concerns the consequences that befall wealthy nations when they allow oppressed nations to wallow in poverty. Yet another is how we deal with history when the history we learned turns out to be a lie, and how easily we forget that we all share a common history. This novel isn't a political or ethical tome but it scores points for illustrating meaningful lessons, always within the context of the plot and without lecturing. It scores even more points for using exceptional characters to tell a fascinating story.