1/5 – Rescored from a 3/5 to a 2/5 to a 1/5. Hated the ending.
City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett strength lies in its world building, history, and the reader’s desire to unravel that history, but unfortunately the plot does not match the strength of the world building and the novel suffers because of that. I really wanted to like this book a lot but I feel that Bennett wanted to write three separate novels, each one suffering in quality because he tried to do too much. He tried to drive the novel by using mystery, world exploration, and characterization. If he would have focused on world exploration first, because his world is without a doubt the most interesting thing, the novel would of succeeded more admirably.
Most milieu or world building centered stories focus on a main character that is learning about the world as the reader is learning about the world. That way there is no awkward exposition instances in the novel explaining to the reader the world instead of showing the reader the world. City of Stairs starts out with the main character knowing more than anyone else in the world about the world, so a lot of the world building comes from exposition, and even flashbacks. During these flashback times, Bennett also focuses on the deeper characterization of our main characters. What results is a lot of explaining and very little doing for much of the book.
If the entire story would have been told through the eyes of Pitry, instead of Shara, where Pitry would have learned about the world while tagging along with Shara, and Sigrud, the result would have been more kind to the reader. It took me most of the book to get all the gods straight because the way they were described and introduced was murky. They were the most interesting part of the story yet it was difficult to discern between them until much later. If the gods could have been tied to actual scenes near the beginning of the book, so that the readers had an anchor point, it would have helped tremendously. I realize Bennett tried to do that but the other things got in the way.
Regardless of it’s faults I still thought City of Stairs was alright. The world is fascinating and I kept reading to learn more about the world. The mystery for me was always, “what is the truth of the past?”, and never “who killed the professor?”, because unraveling Bulikov, the gods, their interactions with the Continentals, and how the Saypuris won the war, were all so much more interesting than any plot line or character. In fact, at the end of the book, there was a moment when I was like, “oh yah, I forgot that someone killed that guy”, and that was the catalyst for the whole story.
The characters are likable as well. Shara, Vo, and Sigrud were all decent characters to read about. Sigrud’s back-story was the most satisfying of all of them and he ultimately was my favorite character. Most of the Shara and Vo relationship stuff could have been removed and the antagonist reveal was cringe worthy in my opinion without more of a setup. Another extremely dissatisfied part of the story is the weapon that is used at the end of the story. That was so lackluster that I rolled my eyes. I was on Shara’s side and wanted her to succeed through out the story. She was a well written character but I still think a secondary viewpoint would have made her character seem more mysterious and intriguing to understand.
The last thing about City of Stairs I would like to talk about is how familiar it is to anime. I’m not sure if Bennett is an anime fan but the setup, introduction to the characters, the flashbacks, the exposition during events, and even the city itself all seemed like something taken from an anime. Maybe it is just me because I have watched a far share of anime but even the names seemed anime in nature.
Bennett does have a future ahead of him though. The setting of the story was its strength and that should of been focused more so than anything else. It has me wanting to read another series that has active gods in it. I’ve always enjoyed the idea of multiple gods with varying personalities, so City of Stairs intrigued me. However, the delivery fell short, but there were times when I really was enjoying the book. I was really into it at times but then it would just fall flat, become interesting again, and fall flat again. I would recommend the book but I would let the potential reader know that it has a lot of short comings.