This enjoyable and absorbing novel is set in a Fantasy-ized sort-of-Russia, chief city Bulikov: a land whose spiritual reality has been ripped from it during a war with their former colony, godless Saypur (a Fantasy-ized sort-of version of the materialist West). |And if I finished it wondering if its very strengths don't go to prove that Worldbuilding Alone, no matter how cool and intricate, cannot carry a novel the whole distance ...? Well well; that's probably just me. In case saying so makes my praise looks like the faint-and-therefore-damning variety, I'll reiterate it, unfaintly: the worldbuilding here is exceptionally cool.
In olden Bulikov, the gods were real, and divine magic sustained the social and material infrastructure of life. Once Saypur found a way to kill off the six divinities, not only did things like medical care and the sewage system stop working, reality itself fractured. Mass death, famine, invasion: fast-forward some decades to the start of the novel and the new Saypur ruling class have declared it illegal even to mention that there were once gods. Bulikov is now a strangely dislocated cityscape, filled (vide the book's title) with stairs that go nowhere, disjunctured walls, massy blocks of unconnected architecture, only partially re-fitted to supply the exigencies of city life for the surviving population. The land is poor and oppressed and the people are chafing under the imperial yoke. The opening chapter is set in a courtroom, where a Bulikov trader is being prosecuted for displaying a symbol that might be interpreted as the sigil of one of the unmentionable, vanished gods. But proceedings are interrupted when (duh! duh! DUHRR!) a famous Saypur scholar of all things Bulikovian, one Efram Pangyui, is discovered murdered.
An investigator is dispatched by the Saypur authorities to get to the bottom of the crime: a woman called Shara (in a slightly strained, even melodramatic touch it turns out that she is the great-granddaughter of Kaj, the Saypur warrior who somehow managed to develop the wonder-weapon that effected the deicide). Shara has a bodyguard, Sigrud: a barbarian of few words (rather Groot-like in some scenes; though in others somewhat more talkative) who seemed to me a little too self-consciously pitched at us as a 'future fan favourite!' I assume Bennett chose 'Bulikov' as a name for his city to honour this individual; that's pretty bold, if so. Certainly the novel never quite rises either to Master or even Margarita levels of powerfully strange. I also assumed, when reading, that Bennett was inspired by those etchings by ... oh, what's his name. Bear with me: I'm going to put you on hold for a moment when I go check this out.
[Tinny music]It does make me wonder, too: in a good sense. It is a wondrous novel. I've found the pictures I had in mind: Piranesis Carceri, of course:
There's a writer who's sure all that glitters is gold
And he's writing a city of stai-airs.
When he gets there he knows, if the bookstores are closed
Go online, he can get what he came for.
Oo-oo-ooh, oo-oo-ooh, and he's writing a ci-i-ty of stairs.
Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it makes me wonder.
That's what kept flashing onto my mind's eye, at any rate, as I read. That, and a grittier, more Russian version of this:
One reason the worldbuilding works so well is that it gets not only the material details and consistency right; it gets the atmosphere right too. The story takes a little while to pick up momentum, but once it does it rolls very nicely along. Good book.
There are some problems, though, too. At the beginning City of Stairs perhaps reads too derivatively like a Fantasy version of Gorky Park: Shara investigates, overcomes inertia and opposition, pushes on despite high-up warnings, survives assassination attempts and so on. She runs into (another slightly strained co-incidence) to her old college boyfriend, now a wealthy Continental trader with factories producing a rare and valuable commodity: stainless steel. There's a deal of procedural stuff. Then after 100 pages or so of that the tone and pace shift a little jarringly: not all the gods are dead; revolution is in the air; magical artefacts are being stored in secret Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark-last-scene warehouses that nobody knows about except that actually everybody seems to know about them.
Shara keeps 'calling' her aunt, who coincidentally is the head of Saypur Intelligence Services, with a magic viewer that's supposed only to be used for dire emergencies. There are attempts at metaphysical proundity that don't quite work; although at the same time the pace picks up from the rather sluggish opening. Bennett only partly squares the circle of bringing his readers up to speed with the complicated backstory and worldbuilding; which is to say, he can't quite resist the infodumpy aside, the as-you-know-Bob (or as-you-know-Boris) dialogue. There are a few too many moments when Shara stops to recapitulate what has happened so far and why it is important; or draws up lists -- seriously, itemised and numbered lists -- of her options for proceeding. It is sometimes wondrous; and sometimes a little jingle-jangly-strummy as it moves from set-piece to set-piece.
I recommend it, though: I enjoyed it plenty. Although I can't quite work out whether the symbolic translation from West/Former USSR into Saypur/Bulikov is muddled in an imaginatively debilitating way, or eloquently complex and tangled. The novel elides, I fear rather inchoately, our sense of 'Russia' as both more spiritual/mystic/religious than the West, and at the same time less so: godless Communism; dialectical materialism; Stalin's famines and gulags. The loss of the gods of this realm channel the 21st-century sense of all those towering Soviet Heroes, whose statues were literally pulled down, leaving a country dislocated, prey to mafia (Bennett calls them 'warlords'), confused about its past. But at the same time, it is Communism itself that dislocated the ancient, god-haunted land of Russia. The West, likewise, occupies a blurry double-state. We're told that Saypur was forced to develop materially and scientifically because it didn't have gods: that on the Continent the gods simply magicked the cities' sewage away, but on Saypur they had to dig proper sewers. So, when the gods disappeared Saypur was well-placed to survive, and the Continent struggled. But the notion that Asia somehow 'had it easy' whilst Europe and the USA put in the hard graft inventing civilisation is a pretty rum one; as is the symbolic identification of the West with atheistical materialism (no Jesusland?) and Asia with soft-eyed reality-bending religious submission. We might call that, oh I don't know, pick a word, 'orientalism'. Are we take 'materialism' here as a cipher for consumerism, against which the USSR held out with the support of their nomenklatura, until the wall fell and their lives went to shit? Seems like an odd position, considering (say) that modern Russia has exactly the same Gini coefficient as the modern US. But, see, this is exactly the problem. I should stop trying to think through the implications Bennett's worldbuilding, and just enjoy it for itself. So I do that. Even if it means the novel thereby drifts into a pleasant-passtime space, rather than a something-interesting-to-say-about-the-world space.