Book Review – City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

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A common complaint leveled at fantasy (fairly or not) is that magic, as typically conceived, becomes a get-out-of-a-plot-hole-free card. You know, the wizard suddenly reveals, at the last second, that he has the magical stone that defeats the Evil Bad Guy, but just didn’t reveal it until now.

Or, for example, Eagles that show up just long enough to get the heroes out of danger, but not, you know, flying them all the way to their destination. Just saying.

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I am not the first to make this point.

I’ve never felt that this was as big a deal as it was made out to be, as most authors I know of took pains to ensure that their magic systems were either costly enough, dangerous enough, or unpredictable enough that they would not operate this way.

But when it comes to gods (real, legitimate, smiting, named gods) in fantasy, how do those power dynamics work? What does it mean, or look like, when an all-powerful being intervenes in history? How is their power manifested?

What happen when they die?

Well, two recent books have addressed these questions for me more fully over the past year. The first, Three Parts Dead (The Craft Sequence #1) by Max Gladstone, I reviewed recently. And the second is City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett.

The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions—until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself—first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it—stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.

Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country’s most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem—and that Bulikov’s cruel reign may not yet be over.

Imagine if, in our world, Britiain had colonized India, brutally exploiting the population for it’s own gain…hang on…I’ve just been informed that Britain did precisely that.

So, imagine if, instead of the British Empire simply believing that they had God on their side, they actually did have God on their side.

Gods, actually. In the plural.

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