A Murmuration of Gods – City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

cityofstairsIf I was writing the tagline for City of Stairs, I’d be tempted to go with ‘China Mieville meets Alif the Unseen‘. In the SFF world this is a pretty potent combination. The only problem is I didn’t wholly enjoy Alif and I seem to be the only person in the science fiction community who doesn’t like Mieville. After reading Robert Jackson Bennett’s accomplished and thought-provoking novel, I can’t help wondering whether perhaps I have a problem with the new and interesting…

The themes and concepts here are manifold and have great depth. The end of the book left me reeling with its examination of the fluidity of history and the power of fable, but at times I found reading CoS something of a chore. It didn’t really pull me along. The novel is essentially a political whodunnit set in a complex secondary universe. There seemed to be a lot of information dumped on the reader. The complexity of the world and its systems overwhelmed the story set inside it. Just processing the political aspects of the book took up a great deal of my attention, so I struggled to find a sense of story. Things happened, but I didn’t feel it compelled to read. There is little driving force to the narrative and, at times, I felt things happened to the characters rather than them being the architects of the novel’s events.

And yet…

The complex artifice of the city of Bulikov is essential for the novel’s wider themes. Such is the strength of the allegory in City of Stairs, I had a peculiar sense that it was a reworked The Master and Margarita. Using a world similar yet wholly different from ours Jackson Bennett tells a fascinating fable of modern attitudes and beliefs. By subverting traditional genre ideas of race and gender (i.e. not viewing everything from the perspective of white males), the author wipes the slate clean, erasing his readers’ preconceptions (well this one’s anyway). I think it’s the rebuilding process that made the novel a bumpy read for me. Nothing is certain, everything is new and open to interpretation. There’s work to be done by the reader and that’s tiring. I found reading Bulgakov hard work too…

City of Stairs is a novel better than my enjoyment levels give it credit for. It reveals the perils of accepting religious dogma as truth, but also the importance of attempting to understand why a group believe the things they believe. With layers of story built up over centuries and mixed agendas by those writing those stories, the true intention of a religious practice may have been lost. City of Stairs stresses how vital it is to understand those who are different to us. Knowledge may be power, but it can also be used to set us free. The real-world parallels are abundant. Whilst I didn’t fully enjoy City of Stairs it is a book that has resonated deeper than almost any other than I have read during 2014. Its splendours may be subtle but they burrow in, refusing to be dislodged. An important, thought-making work of speculative fiction.

Many Thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of this book. 



2 thoughts on “A Murmuration of Gods – City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

  1. I’m glad to see another person not entirely blown away by this book. I enjoyed it, but not enough to match the hype. And some of the scenes, like that cooking scene, were just too cutesy and artificial.

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