Book Review: City of Stairs

It’s been a while since I read a book that satisfied me, that made me hungry for a sequel and reminded me why I love reading.

Recently, I’ve encountered novels where some elements were good, but others lagged. N. K. Jemisin’s A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms had vibrant and engaging characters, but the plot was dull and the ending nonsensical (you are dead but now you are not?). Brandon Sanderson’s The Final Empire moved at a good pace, but the dialogue was painful and the reveal of the protagonist’s ingenious plan shattered my ability to suspend disbelief (I’m not sure deliberately dying to potentially start a riot is the masterstroke it’s made out to be). And don’t even get me started on Soulless.

City of Stairs is – finally – a novel that ticked all the boxes.

cat animated GIF

Where to begin?

It was so lovely to have a plot that was sharp, with every element playing a role, building the tension, fitting together like a well-made puzzle. Click click click, one scene after another, no extraneous ramblings. And FOR ONCE the conclusion made sense. Everything I’ve read in the last six months has a ridiculous deus ex machina, don’t-think-too-hard, hands-up-and-shrug ending. I’m not sure entirely why this is. Bennett’s work feels meticulously considered in comparison.

And he has not only given thought to his plot. This book is dense. Bennett is saying interesting things about colonialism, cultural destruction, religion, and censorship. But he isn’t shoving it in your face in all caps, like “IMPERIALISM IS BAD, OKAY?” Much of the thematic content is subtle, complicated and nuanced. When the colonized turns colonizer, choosing a side, so to speak, is not as easy as it initially appears.

But my favourite, favourite, favourite part is the characters. Bennett has a female protagonist.

Now, you may be thinking that this is not a terribly unusual thing. Well, I am here to tell you that it is, particularly within fantasy literature written by men. Many other authors have produced attempts at female protagonists, cobbled together with stereotypes and insecurity and wish fulfillment. Bennett has a female protagonist. She’s human. She breathes. She has all the agency a feminist could want and all the vulnerability. Ashara is wonderful – flawed but capable. I may have to write Bennett a love letter.

(Although… maybe not. https://vimeo.com/40911856 )

Speaking of love, Ashara is not defined by it. And, if you snorted at my assertion that there are few true female leads, you may be more willing to accept that you never read/see/hear about female characters that are not directed by some kind of a romantic narrative arc. In the words of Joanna Russ: ““How she lost him, how she got him, how she kept him, how she died for/with him. What else is there?”

For Ashara, there is quite a lot. Diplomacy, espionage, preventing the return of pissed-off colonial gods…

Also, Bennett’s blog amuses me.

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One thought on “Book Review: City of Stairs

  1. As always, your review was excellent and astute and very funny and made me want to read the book.

    But the vimeo link was the best thing about it hands down. Wot.

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