City of Stairs (The Divine Cities #1)

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City of Stairs (The Divine Cities #1) audiobook

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Review #1

City of Stairs (The Divine Cities #1) audiobook free

City of Stairs is an urban fantasy by Robert Jackson Bennett. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic-esc city state called Bulikov. At some point in history, everything was ruled by a group of magical gods or deities. One day a group of people from Saypur took over Bulikov by killing all of the gods and outlawed everything about them. The people are not allowed to reference them in any way, talk about them, display anything about them, etc. At some point years later, an official historian is researching the old gods and all of their miracles. He is murdered. Shara Thivani is sent in to find the murderer and bring him to justice. While conducting her investigation, Shara discovers that the dead gods might not be dead after all and that there are people working to restore power back to Bulikov.

I read this book because it was very well reviewed (4.4 out of 5 at the time of this review) and because it was nominated for several awards. After reading it, Im absolutely baffled at the support for this book. With all due respect to Robert Jackson Bennett, this book is one of the slowest pieces of fiction Ive ever read. You could literally remove entire chapters from this book without losing anything from the story. There are page after page after page where nothing happens. The characters themselves are pretty well developed, but the problem is that they are all boring. With the exception of perhaps Sigrud, I couldnt care less about anyone in the book.

Other reviewers lauded the world building in the story, but Im not even sure where or when this book takes place. Is this Earth? All of the names and places sound somewhat Russian, but there is never any confirmation of where we are. Nor is there a clear indicator of what time period were in. There are large, multistory buildings. There are cars and trains. But people are still using candlelight instead of flashlights. At one point in the story it makes mention that photography is a recent invention.but there are cars and skyscrapers? Just never made sense to me.

There is a section of backstory about a former romantic relationship between Shara and a friend of hers from back in her school days. It was a somewhat interesting portion of reading, so when that character pops back up in the book later, I was hopeful that his reintroduction would spark some love interest, or tension, or conflict, or .something. But no. Instead its just awkward (in more ways than one) and seems forced into the story. Id tell you the guys name, but even though I just finished the book, I cant even remember his name because it didnt matter.

At about fifty percent, we finally start getting some action in the form of an escaped sea monster from a burning warehouse. At that point I was hopeful that the book was going to get good and maybe just had a long slow start. But unfortunately, after that scene, the story trudges back into the slow monotonous pacing that plagued the first half of it. With about a hundred pages left in the story, things do start happening and things get a little more interesting, but unfortunately by that time Im simply reading to finish the book so I can move on to something else.

Again, I mean no disrespect to Mr. Bennett. Clearly others have enjoyed his story, so maybe its just me. But I found this book exceptionally slow, mostly uninteresting, and tedious to read. I wouldnt recommend.


Review #2

City of Stairs (The Divine Cities #1) audiobook streamming online

This came highly recommended by people who participate in a fantasy discussion forum that I moderate, so when I was looking for something new to read, I bought it.

I’ll be honest, it took me awhile to get into this book. In the end, I thought there was a lot to like, but some of the themes took awhile to develop. I thought it was going to be a murder mystery in a fantasy setting, since there is a body discovered very early on, and the murder does eventually get solved, but that is not really the main focus of the story.

There are a lot of ideas here that are put together really well and are a little bit different. In the city where the bulk of the story takes place (called Bulikov), when the native gods disappeared from the world, their works went with them, resulting in something called the Blink, where large portions of buildings — and in some cases, large numbers of people — just vanished. So there were a lot of stairs to nothing in Bulikov, hence the name of the book. After-effects of the Blink have mostly settled out, but a few are woven throughout the story and they are interesting and well thought out on the part of the author.

As our main character, Shara, investigates the murder, she uses scientific, systematic, methodical means, even though it is becoming apparent that the laws of physics, as we know them, are not always operating. So the clash of science and magic is there, but it doesn’t play out in what I would consider a conventional way. (Don’t worry, it works.)

Shara is from Saypur, an island that was a colony of Continental concerns way back when. However, when the gods disappeared, the Continent was in disarray and Saypur was not, having not had any native divinities. Saypur stepped in and takes over a lot of functions, which is an unusual turn of events but one that makes perfect sense within the world of the story. Also a little different is the fact that Shara’s people, based on names and some physical descriptions, seem to be darker skinned folks (think from South Asia, also maybe Iran and/or Turkey, and environs), whereas the people of Bulikov have mostly Slavic-sounding names. So it is a bit of a reversal of the usual situation where lighter-skinned people subjugate others. However, racism, when it appears, takes similar forms. I mostly bring this up as an example of a trope the author has turned on its head and run with in a way that I would consider to be successful. I should note, however, that the populace of Bulikov plays very little role in the story. We are primarily occupied with the activities of the Saypuri crew and some Bulikov elites. That is a bit more conventional in fiction.

The rulers from Saypur have instituted something called the Worldly Regulations, which prohibit discussion of the Divinities, their worship, and even learning about the full histories of the continental cities. At first glance, this seems overly cruel. Why deny people the chance to understand their heritage? However, when you learn more about the Divinities, themselves, and the methods and creatures they employed to carry out their edicts, they were often not very nice. They created harsh sets of laws that were impossible to follow, yet imposed equally harsh punishments for failure to comply. They created (or turned people into) nasty, flesh-eating creatures. They imbued their powers into objects with sometimes very dangerous results. So the thought starts to creep in, maybe the people are better off without these Divinities. I don’t think there are any easy answers, and there’s some colonial paternalism going on, but I think the author does a better job of presenting two sides to the argument than many others in the genre.

At any rate, there were a lot of good ideas in this book, a lot of issues where two sides were set against each other and the actual consequences were thought through. I did enjoy thinking about those, and they contributed to my sense that world-building in this book was wonderful.

But, world-building is only one element of a book. You also have writing style, plot, characters, etc. I find I don’t have a lot to say about writing style. There were no verbal tics that irritated me. The writing did a good job of conveying the atmosphere, of describing the action, etc. The writing told the story rather than being the star of the story, which is my preference in a novel. Flowery prose is not really my thing.

Shara and company were sympathetic. I would say not too many of the side characters were fleshed out. The Saypuri governor of Bulikov had a set of characteristics the author had clearly decided on beforehand, and he took the opportunity on several occasions to remind us of those (e.g., her athleticism, her desire to retire to somewhere warm and sunny). But she doesn’t get much deeper than that. Shara’s old school friend (and lover) Vohannes is more complex, although again, he seems to me to be a combination of predetermined characteristics (relating to his upbringing as the second son of a rich and prominent family and his sexual orientation). Shara’s secretary/bodyguard, Sigurd, is more complex, more than the sum of his parts, perhaps because we only learn his true heritage late in the book. I think Sigurd is written particularly well. And then there is Shara. I did say she was sympathetic, and I meant it. You find yourself on her side and you want her to succeed. But she seems less interesting, to me, than some of the side characters. I can describe more of her attributes — competitiveness, compulsive tea drinker, small-framed without many curves, glasses, studious — than for the other characters, but I kind of feel like I’ve seen this character before. (OK, although I wear contact lenses now, she sounds a lot like me. Even to the point of being within a few years of my age. Maybe I am not as interested in characters who are like me? Or just not used to encountering them. Shara is less risk-averse than I am, I suppose.)

For what it’s worth, it’s honestly quite weird for me to be able to list character attributes like this. Unless they are referred to in the text quite frequently. I will say, you don’t notice this while you are reading, but when you think about it later, the lists of attributes hit you. I feel like this compartmentalization is a little odd, is all. Too planned, or something.

Anyway, the thing I haven’t talked about is the plot. It doesn’t go where you think it will (although there was one thing Shara didn’t notice about a character until it was too late that I saw with a 5-mile-high neon sign several chapters earlier, it was otherwise not predictable), but the foundation is laid in the story, through flashbacks (there are a lot, but they didn’t bother me here, and they always served to advance the main narrative), through inventory lists, through discussions between characters, through the italicized parts at the beginnings of chapters, so that you never feel a sense of deus ex machina. It takes awhile to really figure out what the main story is going to be and I think this is why I had some trouble getting into it.

At any rate, I did quite enjoy this by the end and will be reading book two fairly soon.


Review #3

Audiobook City of Stairs (The Divine Cities #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett

I can’t believe I waited so long to read this novel, but ultimately I’m glad I read this book when I did because I loved it. It’s a difficult one to review, but just know that this is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read.

Rather than your typical medieval European-inspired high fantasy setting, Bennett is a pro at creating urban high fantasy backdrops. In this novel we have Bulikov, the major city on the Continent, which feels Russian-inspired, and Saypur, which feels very Indian-inspired. The Continent was once ruled over by a pantheon of gods, and it was with their power that the Continent enslaved Saypur. City of Stairs takes places around half a century after Saypur was able to slay the gods, and now it’s the Continent that’s under Saypur’s thumb.

The people of the Continent are forbidden from worshipping their fallen gods in any way, even simply using an old picture of them as the logo for their business, and they’re forbidden from studying their own history and sacred texts. When a historian from Saypur who has been studying the Continent’s history is murdered, Saypuri spy Shara is sent to investigate.

Shara is brilliant. She excels at what she does, but her true passion lies with history and myth making her a woman after my own heart. She’s a scholar who’s fallen into espionage and politics, and a person who feels a lot of guilt for being fascinated by the history of the country that enslaved her ancestors. Much like Sancia in Foundryside, Shara easily could have been a trope – there’s hardly a lack of detectives with tragic or mysterious pasts in fiction – but Bennett doesn’t do her that disservice. She feels real, and I wish I could meet her for a drink.

The other characters we meet are great, too. There’s Shara’s ‘secretary’, Sigrud, who so easily could have been nothing more than a side character there for comic relief, but he’s another compelling character and I love his and Shara’s friendship. I’d like more and more male/female friendships in fantasy, please.

We also meet Vohannes, Shara’s ex-lover, a Bulikov native who’s quite possibly the most complex character in this novel, and the woman of my heart, General Turyin Mulaghesh. Mulaghesh is a grumpy older woman who smokes a lot, swears even more, and ultimately has a heart of gold despite being a woman you’d never want to cross. I adore her.

With its setting and the technology available in this world, City of Stairs has this delicious 1940s noir feeling to it. It’s so different to any other fantasy novel I’ve read and so well-written, and not the kind of story I was expecting to love as much as I did because, when I read fantasy, I love to be swept away to somewhere more comforting than the world I know. City of Stairs has a lot of things in it that are familiar; it’s very political (it’s a high fantasy novel with governments rather than a monarchy, which is so refreshing), the religious history is incredibly believable, and the idea of the persecuted becoming the persecutors is something we can see throughout the history of the world.

In so many fantasy novels we know, deep down, that good will out even if the story is particularly dark. In City of Stairs we’re never certain that the characters we meet will be okay because the stakes are so high and so realistic. Its exploration of history, politics, culture and colonialism is perfection, and I know this novel is one I’ll be thinking about for a long, long time.


Review #4

Audio City of Stairs (The Divine Cities #1) narrated by Alma Cuervo

I’ve got mixed feelings about this one. On one hand I absolutely loved the world building, on the other hand I finished the book and did not feel like picking up the sequel. What went wrong?

City of Stairs is essentially a murder mystery accompanied by some of the most original world-building I’ve ever seen, and it plays in a wonderful and fascinating setting: the city of Bulikov.

What I enjoyed the most were the philosophical and religious aspects. In fact, the world building and setting make this book terrific. I just didn’t really click with the actual plot.

Bennet’s prose is very readable and flows nicely. The characters are fleshed out and feel real.

So, what did go wrong? I think it’s me and not the book. I’m simply not a big fan of murder mysteries, which is why I was somewhat disappointed. I will definitely pick up the sequels, though, since I think this has some of the best world building I’ve ever seen.

I recommend City of Stairs to anyone who is looking for fantasy that is different and enjoys a good murder mystery. In fact, I also recommend it to people who do not usually read fantasy, simply because it’s something else entirely. Give it a try.


Review #5

Free audio City of Stairs (The Divine Cities #1) – in the audio player below

I really really enjoyed this. For me it had the perfect amount of myth and fantasy mixed into a relatively modern world. I found the characters likable, Sigrud in particular was really fun to read. It started a touch slowly but the story grew and grew, until I couldn’t stop reading. The last quarter of the book was brilliant and rewarding. The world and history that Robert created was fascinating, I loved learning about the different Divinities and the history of the Continent.

One thing I’ve come to really like about RJB is his ability to create mysteries but without frustrating the reader, if that makes sense. There’s so many things you want to discover, and he doesn’t just give you the answers immediately, but he is generous with clues (if you see them) and rarely leaves you unsatisfied with information or reveals. His story telling methods are so enjoyable.

Anyway, fantastic book and I’m looking forward to the next in the series


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