My usual critique of fantasy fiction that just doesn't hit the spot is that the characters are good, but the world-building leaves something to be desired. For City of Stairs by Robert Bennett, the opposite is true. The world-building was great. It felt fresh and original, and I really loved the concept of a city filled with stairs that lead to nowhere--or rather, that the places they led to no longer exist. At least for mortal eyes. Also, the non-Western influences that are all the rage these days were noticeable, without being used like copy-paper. Well done.
City of Stairs is set at an interesting, clever point in Bulikov's history. It has fallen as the sacred city, conquered by the very people they had conquered for centuries. Their gods, the architects of the city and much much more, are killed by the Kaj, and any records or history of the gods are kept from their would-be devotees.
Not that I believe you can actually do that (cultural memory is stored in individuals as well as on paper), BUT, after the murder of an ambassador, the granddaughter of the Kaj is sent to Bulikov to solve the case. The deeper she digs, the clearer it becomes that not all the gods were destroyed, as the new empire was led to believe.
All that was great. And the gods and their sub-deities are all very distinct, robust, and intriguing. What didn't work for me were the main characters: Shara, the Kaj's descendant, now working as some kind of field agent, her partner Sigrud, and Vohannes, one of the leaders of Bulikov's elite and a person of increasing interest. Shara is mousy but intelligent: interesting on its own, but not suited to "field-agent" work. Sigrud does all that. He's interesting, but the platonic chemistry between them doesn't really work because it's not offered in enough depth. There's plenty of backstory on the non-platonic chemistry between Shara and Vohannes, but what Bennett ends up doing is villainizing Vohannes by his behavior, even though it is clear he's not meant to be. I'm all for people needing to figure out who they are, but not at the expense of other people, and certainly not without remorse. Which is essentially how Vohannes is described. So when Shara falls back into a familiarity with him, it seems entirely misplaced.
Unlike my usual gripe, where the characters pull me through a bare-bones world, I kept anticipating the turns in the plot, and had to actively ignore the inauthentic behaviors of the story's heroes. And the sequel just sounds like a repeat of this story, focusing on one of the secondary characters I didn't care a whit for in the first place. The plot was wrapped up so tidily, I have no imperative to read any further in the series. Bummer.
K Rating: 3.5/5
**New Author Goal: 19**