Review of “City of Stairs” by Robert Jackson Bennett

This book is reminiscent in some ways of China Miéville’s The City and The City, also a fantasy/crime novel set in a city superimposed upon another city in fantastical ways. Bennett is perhaps more ambitious though, adding elements of a spy thriller, a political commentary, and an analysis of religion [especially with its anthropomorphism and (relatedly) emphasis on guilt and punishment] into the mix.


The story is set in Bulikov, the capital city of the Continent, governed not, however, by Continentals but by their conquerers 75 years previously, the Saypuris.

As the story begins, a historian from Saypur, Dr. Efram Pangyui, has been murdered, and Saypur sends a “cultural diplomat” to Bulikov to investigate. Shara Thivani, a small, slight woman with thick glasses who guzzles tea and is given to expletives like “Oh, dear!” and “Oh boy!” isn’t who she purports to be however; she is the most experienced Saypuri spy, and she is also a descendent of the Kaj, the man who conquered the Continent by figuring out how to kill its Divinities. Upon the destruction of the six Divinities who protected The Continent, much of its civilization, which was built by them, was destroyed as well in devastation known thereafter as The Blink:

“Whole countries disappeared. Streets turned to chasms. Temples turned to ash. Stars vanished. The sky clouded over, marking the permanent change to the Continent’s climate… Buildings of Divine nature imploded into a single stone, taking all their occupants with them to what one can only assume was a terrible fate. And Bulikov, being the holiest of cities … contracted inward by miles in one brutal moment, disrupting the very nature of the city ….”

Here one thinks of The Communist Manifesto, in which the authors write about the continual revolutions of the bourgeoisie:

“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

But there has been no revolution yet in Bulikov: Analogous to Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series, when people had everything done for them [in this case, by the Divines, prior to The Blink], they became vulnerable to, as Herbert wrote: ” …the terrible danger of a gliding, passionless mediocrity….” Now, with no more gods to do the creating, Bulikov is quite backward, mired in desperate poverty. The people blame their dire straits on the Saypuri, whom they despise. Admittedly, the Saypuri have not helped the Continentals; prior to The Blink, the Saypuri were repressed by the Continentals; as the Sapuri see it, they are now just returning the favor.

In Bulikov, however, the Continentals have a secret weapon, and it is the urbanscape itself, which still holds leftover magic in areas of “reality static” in which the “before” and “after” cities still exist, if only one has the knowledge to access its connective tissue and unlock its mysteries. (An analogous ongoing theme is the way history, too, is still a part of the present, even if most people are unaware of it.)

City of Bulikov by John Petersen on the author's website

City of Bulikov by John Petersen on the author’s website

Thus, the gods may not still exist in corporeal form (although they certainly still do in the minds of the people), but their influence remains, to be used and abused by those who refuse to let go of the faith.

Shara and the female governor of Bulikov, Turin Mulaghesh, find themselves facing a possible revolution, and a religious recrudescence of intolerant orthodoxy. In addition, she has a time limit to identify who murdered Pangyui, or she will be recalled. A rather stunning dénouement brings all the forces to bear, both secular and divine, in a bittersweet resolution.

Discussion: There are many aspects of this story upon which I have not touched, including the power of a bureaucracy to inflict stagnation on a country; the perils of imperialism; racism; gender politics; a romance; the many varieties courage can take; and last but not least, Shara’s powerful “secretary” Sigrud. There are many layers indeed in this fantasy, and most of its kudos stem from the extensive and creative world-building. But perhaps the most stand-out aspect of it for me is the prominent roles – especially for a fantasy novel – given to women, who are moreover non-Caucasian women.

Evaluation: This is a well-written fantasy novel which should definitely appeal to fans of China Miéville as well as fans of “clockpunk” (which, as the Urban Dictionary puts it, is “a sub-genre of the speculative historical fiction genre called Steampunk characterized by modern technologies accomplished using clockwork mechanisms and generally excluding steam power, electricity, and the internal combustion engine”).

Note: This is a standalone novel, but perhaps because of its popularity, a sequel or perhaps companion novel is in the works.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, 2014

City of Bulikov by John Petersen on the author's website

City of Bulikov by John Petersen on the author’s website


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3 Responses to Review of “City of Stairs” by Robert Jackson Bennett

  1. Those pictures are so preeeeeetty! I wish the book were full of comparably beautiful pictures, but I will read it even if they are not. (I am on the biggest illustrated-books kick these days. I am all the time lusting after well-illustrated editions of things.)

  2. Belle Wong says:

    Miéville’s The City and The City was one of my favourite reads. This is the first time I’ve come across City of Stairs. Definitely adding it to the to-read list.

  3. Stefanie says:

    Ooh, I’ve seen this around but didn’t really know what it is about. I like the sound of it!

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