Wednesday, September 30, 2015

City Of Stairs - Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs came out last year, to broad acclaim. The sequel, City of Blades, is out soon, so I thought I’d better catch up before release.

The titular City of Stairs is in fact the shattered and reconstructed remnants of a far larger city, a conurbation  formed by divine agency, a meeting place for followers of various divine faiths on a continent. Then those gods were killed. The city lost touch with parts of itself formed by divine will, and contracted, leaving sections which had never met before merged together, and larger sections missing. It’s a city of survivors, familiar with the backlash of the demise of the divine. Those who killed the gods, and caused this catastrophe, now rule the city. Former colonists and slaves, without a divinity of their own, they threw off oppression to become unlikely conquerors – and now rule the continent in all but name, through economic sanction, through diplomatic pressure, and through a small but effective arm of covert operatives.

The author’s  refusal to bend the complexity of the setting is part of what makes City of Stairs wonderful. The straits of the Continentals we see in the city are still fairly dire, even a great deal of time after their stealthy occupation. It’s a wonderful portrait of a city in transition, from conquered province to junior partner – but our sympathy for those oppressed is matched by the knowledge of how they got that way. Their opposite numbers, descendants of island slaves, have a certain sympathy for that – but their efforts to retain their control of their old masters results in actions which it’s harder to go along with. It’s a world which is swathed in conflicts and contradictions. Between religious and secular. Nationalism and integration. Past and future. And the balance of those elements is something that Bennett does perfectly. The narrative serves in part, as a fulcrum that may move the world, a little, even as it shows it to us. There’s a nuanced view here, behind every interaction and every emotional and physical impact – the world is a complex, breathing, and above all, ambiguous place.

This ambiguity is emphasised by the characters with it. Our main view is provided by an "operative" from outside the continent, sent to investigate a murder. She begins the narrative filled with a certain amount of doubt, a kind of raw emotional wounding, and a weary, cynical calculation which wouldn’t be out of place in a novel of the cold war. Bennett has crafted an agent, a spy, and done so with a deftness which is, honestly, breathtaking. There’s some excellent shifts in character here too – slowly, our protagonists’s past is revealed, andit carries an honest equilibrium of hurt and joy.  Watching this torn, threatened person struggle with their convictions, especially as they negin to break down in the face of a new reality, is fascinating, agonising, and carries a fair amount of human truth.

There’s some excellent supporting cast as well – the similarly torn ex-lover of our protagonist, whose love of country and desire to improve it runs afoul of the social laws that define part of his identity. There’s the bodyguard, the killer without conscience, per se, but with a raw depth of feeling visible through the page. And an assortment of others, whose appearances, if brief, feel plausible because the author makes them so. I’m not sure I’d want to meet several of these people in a dark alley – there’s far too much time spent on the calculus of violence for that – but they do have a feeling of being people.

The plot starts slowly, as our characters investigate a murder. It quickly gathers pace, however, as it becomes clear that murder was the last of the available concerns. By halfway through the book, it really did feel difficult to put down, the weight of expectation and intrigue keeping me turning pages.

The narrative crescendo near the close was emotionally exhausting, but utterly, terrifyingly delightful – and the dénouement, touching and heart-wringing. It kept me guessing all of the way through, either because the characters knew more than the reader, but weren’t talking, or the characters knew less than, or as much as the reader, and were identically baffled. The narrative isn’t afraid to go big, either – it knocks around an entire city, on the one hand, but also uses that period to talk about attitudes to colonialism, religion, and social issues. There’s a lot of great stuff in here, and it’s approached with a care and focus which makes it an interesting, fulfilling read, as well as an enthralling one. If that sounds like something you might enjoy – this one’s absolutely worth picking up. 

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