Hugo reading 2018: City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett

Andrew had actually bought a copy of City of Stairs, the first book in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities series, so I decided to try the novelty of reading a paper book rather than on my Kobo.

The story begins with a man on trial for using a symbol of a Divinity as part of his advertising.  In this world, the Continentals are banned from any mention of their Divinities, or any use of their symbols, and thus also from studying any of their history, by the conquering Saypuri.  The trial is interrupted by the news that a Saypuri scholar, known for studying the history of the Continent has been murdered, apparently by Continentals enraged that a foreign colonist is permitted to study in depth something about them that they themselves are not allowed to know.

So at first glance, we have the wicked colonial power oppressing the downtrodden indigenous population, and we know what side we should be on.

Except that within a couple of chapters, we learn that the reason for the conquest of the Continent is that the Continentals and their Divinities had enslaved the Saypuri for centuries, until the Saypuri rose up in rebellion, killed the Divinities, and conquered their people.

Which puts a different complexion on the whole thing, and makes it a little harder to work out who is wrong.  And even that is an oversimplification, because while the Divinities are supposedly all dead, some of their Miracles still work, one of them disappeared long before the conquest, and there are few, if any, witnesses to the death of at least one of them.

So that is the general shape of the world, and the theology that comes with it is fairly fascinating, and also develops during the book. I liked the fact that the Continent was kind of underdeveloped in terms of science and technology, because the Divinities did everything for them – which gave the Saypuri a huge advantage once the Divinities were gone.  I also liked the way that belief seemed to have changed not just current reality, but history, although that also makes my head turn inside out in uncomfortable ways.

As to the plot – the viewpoint character is Shara Komayd, a Saypuri, and a descendent of the man who killed the Divinities.  She is a friend of the murdered man, and arrives incognito in Bulikov to investigate his death.  Shara is a professional spy, and a scholar of the history and miracles of the Continent, and she travels with an assistant, the piratical Sigrud, who is really excellent at violence.  She quickly finds that the murder has less to do with the scholar’s alleged studies than it has to do with Saypuri and Continental politics.  And possibly religious fanaticism, but then again, possible not.

Also, it turns out that one of the chief movers in Continental politics is her former friend and lover from University, Vohannes Votrov, who is charming and charismatic and tries to hide the fact that he prefers men, which is not OK in Bulikov.  (I have to say, I knew, absolutely and from the start, that there could be no romance between Shara and Vo, not really, but that didn’t stop me from wanting one, or wanting SOME kind of romantic pay off for Vo, because he was a delight.  And there was one, sort of, but it was pretty heartbreaking.)

I also need to mention the governor, Turyin Mulaghesh, who is a wonderfully laconic and practical former military woman who really wants her next posting to be somewhere peaceful, with beaches.  You can sort of tell early in the book that this is not what is going to happen.  She is far too good a character to waste on retirement.

Also, you might want to know that some terribly sad and upsetting things happen in this book.  Bring handkerchiefs.

This is a fascinating book, with complex world-building and excellent characters.  I’d definitely like to read more in the series, though given how much of the scenery got burned to the ground towards the end of the book, I’m wondering just where Bennett can go from here.  But following Mulaghesh around certainly strikes me as a sound strategy.

I don’t think Bujold’s Chalion series is beatable in this category, but this is very, very good, and I definitely want to read more of the series.  I’ve read all the InCryptid books, and like them a lot, but it’s hard to compare a full series against one book.  I’m not sure I have time to read the other two before the nomination season finishes, either, even if I give up on the ‘Best Editor: Short Form’ category entirely.

Anyway, I’m very glad I got to read this one.  It’s clever and twisty and has interesting theology, and the characters are people I care about.  It’s hard to go wrong with that combination.

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