City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

A friend of mine recommended City of Stairs (The Divine Cities #1) to me, and I picked it up not knowing much about what to expect. The genre is alternative world / fantasy, set in a sort of Victorian, or early 1900 era of technology.

In some ways the plot is the best kind of whodunit, starting with a murder investigation that ends up spiraling into something else entirely. There is a lot of dramatic tension and drive, and it’s one of the most “stay up into the night to finish the chapter” books I’ve had a pleasure to read in a while.

While the prose isn’t as gorgeous and lyrical as, say, Rothfuss’s, the writing and setting and plot is clever. Clever in an intellectual sense, clever in the way it dangles shinies in front of the reader to give pause and reflection. Clever in the way that this entirely alien world really isn’t, and judging the characters’s actions and the justness of the world can’t happen without contrasting it with ours.

The characters are maybe not all that deep but they’re interesting and original and good vehicles for exploring all the things the author has to say about things and events.

And all the while the book is a great straightforward mystery/adventure tale to boot, with great pacing. Nitpicking that some of the terms and language are a bit anachronistic feels awfully curmudgeony.

Highly recommended, four stars.

Posted by Toivo Voll