Building worlds is hard work: a self-evident statement which goes some way toward explaining why most authors make do with the mundane plane that has us all in its thrall. But putting the umpteen pieces of truly wonderful worlds together—worlds whose histories and mysteries resonate with readers and ring of authenticity despite the fact that they’ve been conjured whole-cloth—has to be harder by far. There’s no right way to do the deed, either, and the field is replete with wrong ‘uns. Some creators descend into tedious detail; others leave so much to the imagination that the foundation of the fiction that follows is fitful. Robert Jackson Bennett falls fleetingly afoul of the former problem in his first full-on fantasy; but I’ve got good news, too, in that the world, when it is built, is brilliant: the story of City of Stairs springs from Bennett’s setting, leading to a feeling of coherency, of completeness, that precious few fantasies can match. The narrative’s characters, too, are inextricably of the divided domain it describes.
Imagine, if you will, a realm in which gods once walked among men: a Continent complete with a half-dozen different living divinities. No one can say with any certainty where they came from, or what they could possibly have wanted—only that each of the six built its own city, its own base of operations, and called upon its most fervent followers to further the divergent doctrines of their chosen one of choice.
Conflict followed, of course. Great wars were waged with heavenly weapons which felled many; monsters and men swore to uphold one supposedly holy notion or another. In reality, barely restrained chaos in the name of faith reigned across the Continent, but not in Bulikov, where, generations later, the bulk of City of Stairs takes place. Here and here alone, the divinities, in their infinite wisdom, put aside their godlike grievances and gripes and agreed to disagree peaceably for the foreseeable. Miracles of myriad stripes predictably proliferate in this awesome metropolis-in-the-making; to wit, in time, the power of its people was unequalled.
They used it, to be sure, yet they abused it too, as the powerful tend to do: oppressing, for centuries, the dark-skinned Saypuri, until an unlikely hero rose from amongst their number. Having forged a weapon made of mysterious materials that remain as unknown now as ever they were, the Kaj—hallowed be His name—single-handedly slaughtered a goodly number of the gods he had been raised to revile. The Continent was rocked as a result. Everything that the divinities had had a hand in—and the divinities had had a hand in almost everything of significance—was simply stricken, in an instant, from existence: “In short, a whole way of life—and the history and knowledge of it—died in the blink of an eye” (p.66).
This, at least, is the supposition of Dr Efrem Pangyui, a celebrated Saypuri scholar studying the hidden history of the titular city: a landscape much changed—physically, politically, and spiritually—by the beginning of Bennett’s book. Since the death or disappearance of the sacred six, Saypuri authorities have controlled the Continent in life and in language, “outlawing any public acknowledgement of the Divine [...] however peripheral” in the process. Now, “one may no more mutter the name of a Divinity on the Continent than write their name in bright red paint on the side of a mountain [...] to be in violation of the Worldly Regulations, and thus incur punishment” (p.6).
The opening scenes of City of Stairs are arranged around the trial of one such citizen: a “ridiculous affair” (p.7), in the eyes of Governor Turyin Mulaghesh, who is as bored by this busywork as readers will be, because it’s busywork in service of worldbuilding that is at best burdensome. Considering the complexities of the concept at its centre, I grant that the aforementioned deed must be done, but this is neither the time nor the place to hash out a whole history, however riveting it ultimately is. Happily, the blunt instrument Bennett wields here is the exception rather than the rule; its deadening edge stands in stark contrast to the sharpness of City of Stairs’ central characters, and the precision of its plot, which picks up quickly from this point on, as Mulaghesh learns of the death—the murder, moreover—of Dr Efrem Pangyui.
So begins “one of the greatest diplomatic debacles of the past decade” (p.14)—a state of affairs which only spirals outwards from there. Enter Shara Komayd, a former student of the fallen scholar with a personal stake in his unfortunate fate; a Saypuri intelligence officer purporting to pass herself off as the Continent’s new cultural ambassador; and—at last—a protagonist, sly and wry, and joined at the hip to an unsightly sidekick who “cares [little] for the intricacy of obfuscation: Sigrud is a hammer in a world of nails, and he is satisfied knowing only that” (p.81), as well he might be. I wasn’t, if I’m honest. As a character, Sigrud is basically the brawn to Shara’s brain: he’s impossibly strong—as we see in a series of incredibly creative set-pieces that struck me as manifestly Miéville—and loyal to the last, naturally. That said, he’s so at odds with the patience and restraint that demarcates the remainder of City of Stairs that he feels borrowed, warts and all, from another, more action-oriented novel—probably by Joe Abercrombie.
Mercifully, Shara’s salaried saviour is a more appropriate sort of warrior for Bennett to hang his hat on. “Small and quiet” as she may be, “Shara Komayd is as much as weapon as [Sigrud] is,” (p.93) and she’ll do markedly more damage than he—he, who brings down a bridge whilst matching wits with a rampaging prawn-monster—before the story’s over. In advance of that catastrophe, count on clandestine investigations, in the course of which Shara finds a friend in Mulaghesh, an ally in an old lover—Vohannes Votrov, a City Father despite his prohibited proclivities—and a potential enemy in most everyone else. In short order, she realises that all of Bulikov “is a morass of plots and schemes” (p.142). These machinations are primarily partisan to start, and though “the political instinct might wear different clothes in different nations [...] underneath the pomp and ceremony it’s the same ugliness” (p.55), before long it’s obvious that the agenda served by the good doctor’s death “is much bigger than politics. It’s a generational shift” (p.100). This putative handover is represented by a cell of Continental rebels who call themselves Restorationists. In the words of one such soldier, begrudgingly spared by Sigrud after the attempted assassination of Shara’s sweetheart:
“We do not have a past. We do not have a history. We do not have a country. [...] These things are denied to us. But we do not need them. We do not need these things, to know who we are.”
“And what are you?”
“We are the past come to life. We are what cannot be forgotten or ignored. A memory engraved.” (p.121)
City of Stairs’ single greatest success is its depiction of this division—between the faithful and the faithless, yes, but also between the oppressors and the oppressed, the past and the present, the said and the unsaid, and so on. Conflict exists in every aspect of the entire environment, in fact: from the opposing forces which actually clash over the course of the story to the tension inherent in its superlative setting. That the Seat of the World is now known as the City of Stairs is of particular import: the sole purpose of stairs is to enable access to something people want to see, or a place people want to be, but in post-Blink Bulikov, they go nowhere of note. “Huge mountains of stairs [...] slash up hillsides” (p.19) to reveal . . . nothing at all; or, as the Continentals would surely see it—though they’d never say so—not so much nothing as the absence of something.
One way or the other, what made the city great has been taken away, demolished in accordance with the Worldly Regulations or simply disappeared as a consequence of the Kaj’s actions. Inevitably, this has led to bad feeling between the locals and the few Saypuri unlucky enough to be based out of Bulikov, as the miserable assistant to the Associate Ambassadorial Administrator whom Shara supplants at the start remarks: “They hate us, thinks Pitry. But of course they do. It is something he has come to terms with during his short period at the embassy. We tell them to forget, but can they? Can we? Can anyone?” (p. 12)
Pitiful Pitry, Mulaghesh, and the departed doctor are ostensibly sworn servants of Saypur, but they do not despise all Continentals, nor do all Continentals despise them. They’re explicably conflicted, as is Shara: a woman caught between worlds, as invested in protecting the people of Bulikov and beyond— not least her former partner Vohannes—as she is in satisfying the byzantine demands of the distant Ministry, represented in the text by Auntie Vinya, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and essentially Shara’s "M." These relationships are deftly developed over the duration of City of Stairs, and roundly resolved by its close, lending the text a satisfying sense of an ending at once intimate and expansive, as the conflicts at its core are resolved on the large scale and the small.
Though City of Stairs stands alone just so, its last chapters chart a favourable way forward for this world in turmoil, and for several of the surviving characters we’ve come to care for, including Mulaghesh—apparently the protagonist of this summer’s City of Blades, which sequel I’m keen to read. Sigrud is a slight snag in the scheme of things—albeit much improved by a glimpse into his origins near the end of the novel—and whilst the setting could certainly have been better assembled, it’s fantastically fully-formed in the final summation, and necessary in every sense to the tale Bennett tells: one in which each piece is a part of the puzzle, and crucially, the solution, too. Conceptually incredible—thoughtful and provocative—and deftly executed City of Stairs is, apart from that sluggish start, a masterfully balanced and tremendously tense text that reminds readers of something at once topical and timeless: it may be that we can put yesterday to bed, but it’s going to wake up again eventually, and when it does ... well. That’d be telling.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.