Funny story: I first picked up the sequel to local Austin author Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs, City of Blades. I got about fifty pages into Blades and realized I very much wanted to know the characters and the world better before I read it. The next trip to the library, I picked up City of Stairs. It did not disappoint.
City of Stairs sits somewhere between “fantasy” and “science fiction.” There are no space ships or aliens. There are guns and cannons and swords, but there are also miracles. One could reasonably describe the miracles as “magic,” but not once in the novel did I ever think “that character is casting a spell.”
Bennett reminds me, in both prose and concept, of China Mieville…only without Mieville’s academicism and bouts of pretension. City of Stairs is a tremendously clever novel that never puffs out its chest to show how clever it is. Behind the plot’s mysteries lie thoughtful considerations of historiography, colonialism, sexuality, and religiosity. There’s also a six-and-a-half foot quasi-viking who bites out somebody’s throat, monsters, and plenty of intrigue. The deeper ideas are all there, but you don’t have to appreciate them to enjoy the book. (Which may be the biggest difference from Mieville.)
The world of Saypur and Bulikov is broken. About 80 years before the novel opens, a Saypuri general kills the Divinities of the Continent (who had been treating Saypur rather like England treated Ireland). When the gods died, their miracles stopped functioning; some of those miracles had touched on the fundaments of reality. For Saypur, which lacked a god, the effects were minimal. In Bulikov, especially, the effects of this “Blink” were disastrous. Since then, Saypur has ruled Bulikov (and the rest of the Continent) as occupiers. The Continentals remain bitter about gods the youngest adults barely know, and about the fact that the Saypuri killed those gods and broke their world.
Into this mix of resentment and resignation comes Shara Komayd, intelligence operative and descendant of the Kaj who killed the gods. Saypur’s greatest historian has been murdered in Bulikov. Shara arrives to investigate with Sigrud, her Dreyling “secretary.” (Said secretary writes most of his memos in the blood of his enemies.) Investigation of the professor’s murder leads indirectly to Shara’s ex, Vohannes Votrov, as well as a group calling themselves “Restorationists.” The Restorationists want to bring back the old ways (and more).
Chaos ensues! There are secret messages, secret warehouses, secrets of families and cultures. The climax is a heady collision of action and metaphysics. The denouement answers some questions, asks others, and leaves things open for sequels. (The second book follows a military officer who is a secondary character in Stairs.)
The Cool Thing to Consider
I’m analytical by inclination and, even moreso, by training. Years and years in school have turned my instincts toward vivisecting what I read, even when I’m reading for pleasure. I remember walking out of Serenity (the Firefly movie) and wondering at how much the movie had sucked me into its world. I had watched the whole thing with trying to spot tricks of narrative (or score, which is what usually gets me).
The setting in City of Stairs worked a similar magic. It’s probably the freshest, most cleanly realized setting I’ve read in years. Jackson Bennett allows the characters to live completely inside the world. He uses epigraphs to provide more background for readers who want it. Shara is a historian as well as a spy, but her explanations fit so tidily into the narrative that they never felt like pure exposition. Select flashbacks fill things in for characters while providing context.
How does the author make it work, though? While one can’t, by definition, imitate the originality, there are things to take away from Jackson Bennett’s methods.
First, language matters. Jackson Bennett names his Saypuri characters and places in quasi-subcontinental style. The names “sound” like they’re from the Indian subcontinent. The Continental names “sound” like a collision of Slavic and Central Asian influence. (The Dreylings are quasi-Nordic, although there’s only the one character in this novel.) Jackson Bennett uses these naming patterns consistently, which helps distinguish the cultures as well as the characters. Bulikov is not an undiscovered part of England, nor is it a jumble of vowels and consonants meant to evoke the fantastic. The language works organically to suggest that the world is bigger than the characters we’re following.
Second, Jackson Bennett makes good use of the “stranger comes to town” element of his story. His protagonist has spent years on the Continent, but not many in Bulikov. She arrives in an emergency situation and is forced to assimilate information at breakneck speed. She travels around the city and meets important people. We’re introduced to people and places through her eyes, helpfully dodging most raw exposition.
Third, and trickiest in relation to the above point, Shara knows more than anybody around her about the world. Part of Saypur’s domination of the Continent relies on the World Regulations, a grand censorship of all mention of the Divine. Shara has studied the Continent and the Divine extensively, with resources only available to Saypuri. She knows more about Bulikov than that city’s citizens do. (It’s terribly unfair, and Jackson Bennett makes that clear.) Shara’s knowledge is still incomplete; she’s still the stranger that comes to town. Her ability to explain so much, but never everything, helps suck the reader in. We want to know what’s next, what’s really going on. It’s the frustration of missing the last few pieces of a puzzle. That lack helps the plot move forward and sucks readers with it through the world and its history in an organic, unforced way.
Strategic use of flashbacks also helps establish the setting. Shara and Vohannes have a history; Bennett uses that history to personalize the broader conflict between Saypur and the Continent. We get a few flashbacks from Sigrud that offer hints of the Dreyling lands, but Bennett keeps things center on Shara. It works better than it ought to because the author is strategic in the use of flashbacks; they always connect to what is occurring in the novel’s current moment.
Last, least, but still important: Bennett gives us epigraphs at the start of every chapter. Many of these are by the murdered historian. Some come from other sources. They’re all in-world texts, though. They shed small light on the events of the chapter and cast relevant shadows on the setting.
What We Nick from this Novel
Characters live somewhere, even when the camera is off.
Good settings give the impression that they exist as more than vehicles for the story. There’s no question that Shara Komayd is the protagonist. She solves the riddles. She defeats the “bad guys,” more or less. The world keeps moving around her, though. We learn enough about Bulikov to infer what its residents are up to after the novel ends (and what they were up to before it began). It works as though it’s a real place, without the author making a show of explaining it. What more can we, as readers or authors, ask of a setting?