City of Stairs (2014) is the latest stunning effort from Robert Jackson Bennett. Having delivered ferociously unconventional interpretations thrillers, dustpunk epics, small town horror, Lovecraftian entities and other speculative staples in the past, Bennett now tinkers with a fantasy world of his very own. His new book is combination of New Weird noir and fantasy epic, set in a universe where reality itself is a malleable concept.
The titular city is Bulikov, the once-glorious once-capital of an empire that once spanned continents. Now, Bulikov is a city of faded glories and a backwater outpost controlled by the city of Saypur. And "faded" is literal: with the untimely demise of Bulikov's deities, parts of the city simply disappeared. Now the city is a ramshackle disaster, a fusion of architectures, empires and, in some circumstances, universes.
The old empire was a religious one, based on the uneasy union of a handful of gods - deities with the power to restructure the world at a whim. Centuries ago the Kaj of Saypur, the champion of his people, developed a mysterious device that could kill gods. With that, the balance of power shifted. Now the rationalists of Saypur rule the world, the deities are verboten. Bulikov's history isn't being rewritten as much as it is systematically erased.
When a scholar from Saypur is murdered, "junior diplomat" Shara heads to Bulikov to solve the crime. As is quickly revealed, Shara has far more impressive credentials - she's a super-spy-secret-agent type from Saypur's enigmatic (and semi-omnipotent) foreign service. The scholar was a friend, and Shara's taking his death personally. More so as she starts to unpick the city's many, many, many secrets...
Despite its compact size, City of Stairs has a vast scope. Shara's investigation uncovers plot after plot - both contemporary and historical. She uncovers the various factions wrestling for Bulikov's future, encounters cults and worshippers of things-that-ought-not-be, speeds through documents revealing the dark secrets of both Bulikov and Saypur's history and battles assassins, monsters and other agents while uncovering mystical wisdom about the very nature of the universe. Nor are Shara's personal conflicts neglected: her mysterious past, her sidekick's mysterious past, her family, her romantic entanglement, her professional goals... all poked and prodded as well throughout the course of the book.
City of Stairs is, when reduced to this bulleted list of plot points, too much to possibly work. Yet this tangled twiny mess of stuff... it succeeds. Brilliantly. This should be a chaotic stampede of a book, but it isn't - and that's a testament to Mr. Bennett's skill at wrangling ideas and bringing them into line: a combination of cryptozoologist and bronco buster.
Part of this is because of City of Stairs' remarkable thematic consistency. Although framed as a quasi-traditional secondary world epic, this is a book about free will: striving for it, resisting it, owning it and avoiding it. And this appears at ever level of the book. Shara's obedience to her occupation, the religious theocracy of the Bulikov empire, and the rationalist imperialism of the Saypur one. On the personal level, Bennett presents physical metaphors: the struggle (literal) of a single man vs an unstoppable monster. On the political level, the city of Bulikov is divided into factions - those that believe freedom comes from forgetting the past, and that disagree, and wish to embrace it. Even in the world-building this discussion comes to life - in a world where reality is the plaything of powerful minds, who is really in control? By keeping everything on a single theme, City of Stairs' scattered subplots manage to focus the conversation rather than dissipating it.
Simply as a take on epic fantasy, City of Stairs has a lot to add to the genre conversation. This is, arguably, a type of 'post-epic' epic: the Great Battle happened, a Hero Arose and the Evil Empire fell... now, we're hundreds of years later, struggling with the fallout. Evil Empires don't dissolve peacefully overnight - what happens to the bureaucrats of Mordor? Or, is it the other way around? A utopian nation ruled the world: a continent of wealth, plenty and universal justice. The Evil One destroyed and banished the Gods, creating chaos and the apocalypse. Now the Evil Empire is in control, and our heroes are wrestling with the conscience in an age of oppression... Moral ambiguity is at the core of City of Stairs, a book that's committed to presenting alternative points of view on every page.
Curiously, if there is a weak point to City of Stairs, it is Sigrud. On one hand, as a modern fantasy archetype (the grizzled veteran with a mysterious-but-eventually-quite-obvious past! He even has his own prophesy!), Sigrud provides a ponderous counterbalance to the slickly charming Shara: the bazooka to her stiletto; the brawn to her brains. But, disappointingly, he's not actually satire, and doesn't seem a response to the archetype as much as a paragon of it. As enjoyable as he is, Sigrud comes across as the fan-service refugee from a more traditional (and far less interesting) fantasy novel.
City of Stairs is deliciously unsettling. Over the course of the book, the personal plotlines are tidied up, and, indeed, the fate of nations is (at least temporarily) settled. But Shara's investigations turn up a riddle of cosmological chicken and egg, which, in the greater scheme of things is... actually the greater scheme of things. And that is left appropriately unresolved - because, if there is a lesson to City of Stairs it is that in the face of the unknowable, the impossible and the morally relevant, the only thing we can be is true to ourselves.