Guest Book Review: City of Stairs

Hey there! Sarah here. I know, it's been a little while ... well, a long while ... since I last checked in with a guest book review. I know, I know! I apologize. I've been hard at work on my graduate program in English Lit and while that means plenty of reading happens, the reviews get side-lined in favor of papers and discussion board posts. It's not as much fun, but there's a nice pay-off at the end of it when I get to nab my Master's degree. 

I wanted to take some time away from that, though, and stop in at Blue Cat Review and say "hi!" I also wanted to leave you all with a review that I managed to find some time for after reading a book that I'd heard a lot of hype for. I was curious to see whether it held up. It's something of a cross between urban fantasy and classic fantasy, and earns major points for blending a multicultural cast of characters that work effectively. As some professional literary critics, various "puppy" groups, and amateur reviewers tend to argue from time to time (particularly as awards season comes around), the fantasy genre is dominated by white, male authors. This is a truth in many respects, the greats traditionally being recognized as Tolkien (white male), Jordan (white male), Card (white male), Brooks (white male), Martin (white male) and their like. 


And thus, as authors tend to write from perspectives they know and are comfortable with, fantasy story protagonists are largely white, if not also male. Evolution is taking place, though, never fear! Women have broken into the pantheon of famous fantasy writers. J. K. Rowling, anyone? Anne McCaffrey, Andre Norton, and Juliet Marillier? N. K. Jemisin even claimed the Hugo for Best Novel this year, showing that not just a woman, but a woman of color could write every bit as powerfully as the white males she beat out on the ballot. 


Now, this isn't to say that fantasy is a "racist" genre, by any means. In fact, it is an excellent arena in which to take on such social issues. This is showcased rather well by Bennett in City of Stairs, and is one of the finer points of the piece, IMHO. I think it's important to remember how young the fantasy genre is and that it got its start with Granddaddy Tolkien's Euro-centric creation of Middle-Earth. As the genre gains greater age, we'll see more authors who both divert from the "white male" demographic themselves and who write about characters who aren't the traditional Arthur's, Aragorn's, and Rand al'Thor's. It will make for a richer, more diverse collective of creativity we who flock to the SFF shelves at Barnes & Noble can appreciate.

So, leaving the ramblings behind, here are my two-cents after reading Bennett's work...

Book cover

I was excited for City of Stairs, looking forward to a completely different take on the fantasy genre. While the underlying story of the Continent, the Saypuri, the complete reversal of power dynamics, the look at issues of racial prejudice, and the exceptional take on religion were worth the full weight of their ideological heft in gold, I was sadly disappointed by Bennett's book. There were a lot of excellent elements in play, but he failed to support them with solid writing and consistency.

Some Background...

The Continent was once home to the dominant race of mankind. Here, the people were ruled over by present Gods who tended them and offered succor. As the "sanctified" race, the people of the Continent held the power to rule the world. They oppressed the Saypuri of the South, as they were people who had not been chosen as they had. A Saypuri rebel discovered a way to destroy the Gods of the Continent and, in time, the Gods were decimated and Saypur claimed dominion. 

Generations later, the murder of a notable Saypuri historian in Bulikov, the most sacred city of the Continent, brings Shara Komayd to search out the ones responsible. One of the most effective intelligence officers Saypur has ever seen, she uncovers a plot that speaks of hidden Gods, a return to power for the Continent, and death for those who dared claim what was not theirs.

Good Stuff! So, What Went Wrong?
Bennett came up with a great story to tell. He truly did! He asks some of the same questions that N. K. Jemisin asks in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms regarding divinity, how might society be affected by the presence of gods within it as opposed to absent deities, and what is the Man-God relationship really about? Great, deep questions! He just didn't tell the story well. His writing, turns of phrase, delivery of profanity, and sense of consistency tripped the story up endlessly until I just couldn't enjoy it. For instance, there came a point mid-book when there needed to be an info dump in order for readers to understand what was coming. Bennett knew that Shara was the one capable of delivering it since, you know, she's smaht. He didn't want to just have her standing around and talking at her audience, though, so he decided to have a little activity going on as background in order to frame the conversation as well as reveal a deeper part of Shara's personality. What did he choose to do? Shara cooked curry. Ta da! No really, this was presented as a huge revelation about her character that was supposed to clue us into the fact that she is a many-faceted persona ... and, of course, it was the bestest curry anyone had every eaten. Like evah! *eye roll*

Okay, sure, frame your big info dump so that you avoid the common reader complaint about the process, but c'mon!! And, I don't know whether anyone else noticed, but Mulaghesh and Shara, who are both experienced political players, spent a lot of time "grimacing" in front of the people they were trying to outplay. Wouldn't a savvy spymaster guard her expressions and school the messages she gave in front of a crowd? *sigh*

And the profanity that I'd mentioned? Well:

"...I'll f**k your ancestors' mouths..." 

REALLY?! I'm not against profanity. It can be an effective vehicle for emotion and expression in a story, but it needs to be delivered well. Bennett couldn't seem to manage it. *face/palm*

In Summation...
Awesome story concept and great world-building elements come into play, but I just can't give this a glowing recommendation. It's got a boatload of great ideas in it that just want to be your next big fantasy addiction, but it's too poorly put together for it to really be what it should. However, I'm hopeful that Bennett will be one of those really good authors who learns and develops, honing his craft and publish future books that have outgrown these weaknesses. He has the imagination to do something big and awesome, and I'm rooting for him to pull it off!