Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Chicago Nerds: City of Stairs

This week's Chicago Nerds book discussion of Robert Jackson Bennett's "City of Stairs" was a lot of fun. We all enjoyed the book a lot and had very little to nitpick with it: highly recommended! Possible spoilers below...
"City of Stairs" uses a number of not-particularly-new tropes and devices from modern fantasy and just executes them very well.

There's the fantasy cultures that are clearly based on real ones--but Bennett uses Slavic and Indian cultures as his main players, which immediately escapes retreading the Perpetual Quasi-European vibe so common to fantasy (there's also an Anglo-Nordic culture a bit off to the sidelines, which I'm honestly thankful for). Furthermore, the power relations here are unusual and unexpectedly rich--centuries before the novel's start, the enslaved Saypuri (Indian) nation successfully rose up against their Continental (Russian) masters, going so far as to successfully invade their former oppressors. So this a story of deep colonial conflict, a reversal of roles that has a lot of ambiguity and ambivalence. A theme that resonated very strongly through the book is the legacy of slavery and oppression even after it's been cast off.

Then there's Bulikov itself, the titular City of Stairs. Weird or shifting urban landscapes, and particularly the idea that there can be sort of more than one city in the same place, that there are different levels of accessible reality in a city, that cities are subjective and sort of overflow themselves--these are all ideas being tackled from a lot of writers right now; Bennett's city, a sort of cracked and shrunken remainder of a more glorious past, is a pretty good take on it.

And the big trick, of course, though it takes a while for the book to get into it, is the gods. The Continentals worshipped a pantheon of real, extant gods, who were (mostly) defeated and destroyed by the Saypuri. These gods all had very different personalities, and left behind a number of "miracles"--artifacts or techniques with supernatural powers. This is the only "magic" in the world, which otherwise feels very refreshingly naturalistic. Bennett did a very good job of drawing on a number of different religions to flavor the gods--pretty Old Testament in some parts, more Hindu or Buddhist influences on others.  And indeed one of the hardest-hitting parts of the book, more blatant (in a good way) than its engagement with colonial legacies, is its condemnation of religiously-motivated sexual repression. Indeed, the whole mechanic of how the gods work--they work in a kind of feedback loop with their followers--encourages the reading that we need to take responsibility for how we think about and treat sexuality.

There's also a surprising amount of dry humor (though I could have used more!), a kind of hilariously bad-ass King Arthur-slash-Odin-slash-Wolverine sidekick, lots of divine quirkiness (my favorite being the god who's fond of granting gender-swaps all around), airships, a giant god-squid-prawn monster, and a really good curry-cooking scene.

We had a few criticisms--the majority of the group felt that the book really dragged for the first couple-four chapters, before the supernatural/action elements started intruding on the bureaucracy. While I found Bennett's prose style quite smooth to read, he occasionally gets a little more purple than I would like--a couple people at group pointed out the sort of unbelievably flowery things characters sometimes say.  Bennett also falls into that category of writers who could stand to eliminate "bemused" from their vocabulary. There's also some unevenness in the characterization; outside of the core handful of characters (who are pretty great), there seemed to be too large a cast of named, recurring characters who didn't get enough screen-time/purpose/personality, with the result that I was perpetually glancing away to remember who someone was.

These criticisms aside, a really enjoyable book that will probably have pretty broad appeal among SF/F fans. Bennett appears to be working on at least one sequel, which seems promising.

The Chicago Nerds' next book-club will discuss "The Peripheral" by William Gibson, January 12 at Filter Cafe.

see also:
I'd suggest these works if you like "City of Stairs", or vice versa.
"The City & The City" by China Mieville
"Small Gods" by Terry Pratchett
"The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms" by N.K. Jemisin
"American Gods" by Neil Gaiman
"Cat's Cradle" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (because honestly I think any discussion of gods/religion-as-fiction needs Bokonon in the conversation)

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