Saturday, February 21, 2015
CITY OF STAIRS
Robert Jackson Bennett
Broadway Books 2014
Reviewed by carol
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I almost didn’t, wary of the disappointment an over- hyped book can bring. But once I started, it was very hard to put down (sorry, fellow jurors, for ignoring your social overtures during our breaks). Picked as a monthly read, I started right before being called for federal jury trial. At first, I was glad of the opportunity to get in some reading time–nothing better than sitting around reading as the gears of bureaucracy grind away–but imagine my dismay when I was picked. Suddenly my reading time dissipated like smoke. Still, a lunch hour here, a judge’s meeting there, and I was able to make serious progress, until I got far enough in the book (and the trial) that I sacrificed sleep for resolution.
A very quick synopsis, but don’t let it fool you. The complexity of the story is built well and is by no means a dizzying array of foreign place names and concepts:
The city of Bulikov has been conquered by the Saypur people, its powerful divinities killed or missing, and the history of its religion erased. Much like Greek and Indian gods, the Divinities of Bulikov were very present in their followers’ lives. Now, however, it has become taboo to worship, to even speak of the gods or to acknowledge the daily miracles they created for their followers. Shara is a covert operative who has come to Bulikov intending to discover why scholar Efrem Pangyui, who was researching various miracles and mysteries of the gods, has been murdered. In disguise as a new ambassador, she brings her faithful protector Sigrud with her. Shara’s Aunt Vinya is the Minister of Foreign Affairs and gives Shara one week to solve the murder before she needs to leave Bulikov for the next mission. As Shara investigates, not only does she have to confront the possibility that Restorationists in Bulikov are trying to overthrow the Saypur, she has to confront her own past.
Characterization is wonderful. The characters are complex, conflicted, with multiple motivations and loyalties. Even a brief interrogation of an elderly female maid had nuance. Questions are gradually built about Sigrud, at first a seemingly typical silent bodyguard character, until the reader is as curious about his history as Shara’s. It is also delightful to find an author who uses language well enough to imbue physical description with hints of the spirit. The first time we meet Ambassador Shara Thivani, the assistant sent to meet her notes:
“Pitry finds there is something off about her eyes… The giant’s gaze was incredibly, lifelessly still, but this woman’s eyes are the precise opposite: huge and soft and dark, like deep wells with many fish swimming in them.
The woman smiles. The smile is neither pleasant nor unpleasant: it is a smile like fine silver plate, used for one occasion and polished and put away once finished.”
The setting is primarily focused on the city of Bulikov and receives equally lavish description:
“The house of Votrov is one of the most modern homes in all of Bulikov, but you could never tell by looking at it: it is a massive, bulky, squat affair of dark gray stone and fragile buttresses… To Shara, who grew up seeing the slender, simplistic wood structures of the Saypur, it is a primitive, savage thing, not resembling a domicile as much as a malformed, aquatic polyp.”
Like life, such a serious tale of conquered and conqueror is leavened with humor. Much is cynical, based on Shara’s sardonic nature and a friend’s irreverent one:
“‘She gives him a taut, bitter grin. ‘And you’re still so smugly, blithely ignorant.’
‘Is it ignorance if you don’t care to know it?’
‘Yes. That is almost the definition of ignorance, actually.'”
What builds depth for me is Shara’s curiosity about the divinities and their cultural effects, as well my growing realization that no one here has the moral high ground. The Saypuri were the slaves of the Continentals until they rose up, and a hero killed one of the Continental gods. Now, the Saypuri keep the Continentals on a tight leash, hoping to prevent the return of their oppressors:
“While no Saypuri can go a day without thinking of how their ancestors lived in abysmal slavery, neither can they go an hour without wondering why. Why were they denied a god? What was the Continent blessed with protectors, with power, with tools and privileges that were never extended to Saypur? How could such a tremendous inequality be allowed? And while Saypuris may seem to the world to be a small, curious people of education and wealth, anyone who spends any time in Saypur soon comes to understand that in their hearts lives a cold rage that lends them a cruelty one would never expect. They call us godless, Saypuris occasionally say to one another, as if we had a choice.”
Something about this reminds me of Guy Gavriel Kay in its finely balanced blend between personal and political, the past and present and love and family, all woven through with the miraculous and colored with lyrical language.
I’ll be adding it to my library and looking for more from Bennett.
cross posted at my own blog at https://clsiewert.wordpress.com/2015/02/06/city-of-stairs-by-robert-jackson-bennett-or-stairs-rising/