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.

The Invisible Library Series by Genevieve Cogman

The series consists of The Invisible Library, The Masked City, The Burning Page and the Lost Plot (at least one additional book is slated for publication later this year.)

The setting ticks so many boxes. We live in a multiverse, although most of the residents of the worlds in this multiverse do not know it. Connecting most of these worlds is The Library, an ancient institution that collects books from the various worlds to preserve knowledge and other reasons. It employs Librarians to acquire these books. There are two other factions — dragons who embody order, and fae who embody chaos.

The protagonist is one of these Librarians and her apprentice, and they find a lot of challenges in their seemingly simple task.

The protagonist is great; while there’s a bit of Mary Sue-ism, she has a great internal dialogue that not only sets up moral decisions, but is also funny.

The setting as a whole builds up so many great characters, plot hooks and places that it seems a pity if they won’t be followed up on. As it stands, there are some that seem to be abandoned half-way through, and I can only hope they will get revisited in the future before the ball of plot becomes too unmanageable.

Another very enjoyable aspect is the prose itself. It flows effortlessly, the dialogue is nice, and the vocabulary is unusually rich.

And yet the books are shy of being great. The Masked City in particular was the weakest of the series for me, as it was filled with cinematic action that got to be too much. The pacing and dramatic tension in general doesn’t seem to quite work, although The Lost Plot is perhaps the best in this regard, so hopefully the future works continue with those lessons learned. Whatever it is, the series has all the ingredients to be great, but so far only achieves goodness. They’re easy books to recommend, but not books that keep me up wanting to finish the chapter.

Three and a half stars for the series, except three for The Masked City.