City of Stairs (The Divine Cities #1)

End Date:  July 25

Author:  Robert Jackson Bennett

Published:  2014

Genre:  Fantasy

Pages:  452 (paperback)

Selected By:  Our Virtual Members

Average Score: 

Scoring Loved Book

“Years ago, the city of Bulikov wielded the powers of the Gods to conquer the world.  But after its divine protectors were mysteriously killed, the conqueror has become the conquered; the city’s proud history has been erased and censored, progress has left it behind, and it is just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power.  Into this musty, backward city steps Shara Divani.  Officially, the quiet mousy woman is just another lowly diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors.  Unofficially, Shara is one of her country’s most accomplished spymasters – dispatched to investigate the brutal murder of a seemingly harmless historian.  As Shara pursues the mystery through the ever-shifting physical and political geography of the city, she begins to suspect that the beings who once protected Bulikov may not be as dead as they seem – and that her own abilities might be touched by the divine as well.” – from the Goodreads summary.

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Gigglemug Reviews

Lady Esbe:

Scoring Loved Book

“There is nothing to reject.  Names are other people’s affairs.  They are things to help people identify things that they are not.”

I can honestly say, this is the second author I’ve been introduced to, since the advent of this book club, that I am an instant fan.  Justin Cronin, Jonathan Maberry and Robert Jackson Bennett get it right, when so many authors get it wrong.  I’m a fan of well thought out stories that grow and morph into a world that you can throw yourself into.  I enjoy a book that makes me want to fight sleep to press on to see what happens next or how the situation will resolve itself.

Kudos to our book club family for choosing this selection.  Absolutely loved it.  The only reason it took me so long to read it is because of other time constraints…blast you work!!!!

This is a story as old as time, with a subjugated country or region called the Continent, struggling against the power of it’s overlord, the country of Saypur.  We are specifically introduced to the woes of the city of Bulikov, once the center of activity for the six gods that ruled the Continent.  After Saypur’s conquering hero, the Kaj, overthrew the gods and the incident known as the Blink occurs, the city falls into ruin and rebuilds itself, as best as possible with the miniscule help they receive from Saypur.  As with any conquered nation, there is much distrust, disdain and general resentment for their predicament.  After all, not only were you a conquered people, your history and theology were arbitrarily stripped from you by your conquerors and you can do nothing but abide by the new, restrictive to the point of being constricted regulations.  I personally believe this is a great parallel to how the Native Americans were treated once their lands were stolen and they were placed on reservations to simply sustain, and not thrive.  Not only were their lands taken, but their identities, religion and beliefs were subverted to keep them subjugated while the rest of the country thrived around them.  It is a shame in reality and also a shame in this story.  As the novel progresses you see the hatred and mistrust from both sides and find that it’s the same side of the coin, just a reverse of the circumstances.

The world building here is simply impeccable.  I could picture the griminess of Bulikov.  I could envision a once thriving metropolis, destroyed by war and subsequently the Blink.  Some elements of grandeur still exist, but mostly, there is rubble, there are dilapidated buildings and stairs that once lead to something great leading into nothing.  I could envision people who, generations before, were a burgeoning lot, but now, are doing their best to make it day by day and have let bitterness and despair overtake them.  You have those who are content to do nothing, but as with most discontented civilizations, you have a faction or two that are moving against the reigning powers to either free themselves or merely obtain a better life.  Those factions can also range from that terrorist regimes to a business man trying to bring industry to his handicapped city. All of these things come into play in Bulikov and executed perfectly by Bennett.

As to our players, I find that Bennett is able to weave so many different cultures into this story, that you can almost pick out who derives from what.  For instance, my favorite character, Sigrud, is nothing short of a Viking.  The description of this mountain of a man that is a Dreyling, screamed Nordic powerhouse to me.  I pictured Ragnar Lothbrok meets Eric the Red in a great amalgamation.  His love of the seas, of fighting and simply blunt observations made me smile at every turn.  He is lethal, quiet yet wise.  My favorite quote from him is:

“The Divine may have created many hells, but I think they pale beside what man creates for himself.”

Everyone but Shara, his employer/charge and dare I say friend, sees him as an unsightly brute.  His deforming scars, his one eye and general muscle behavior could put some readers off.  Yet I found myself longing for what Sigrud would do and what he had to say about a situation as it unfolded.  His brute force is called upon time and again to protect them or aide their cause, as all others in their party are ill equipped to deal with what Sigrud can.  Sigrud doesn’t mince words, he doesn’t waste time and he is a man of action, who’s own trials and tribulations are brought to bear in the story itself and I will not reveal because while I suspected his lineage, I was happily rewarded in the Warehouse scene, which enhances his stance of:

“Scars are windows to bitterness – it is best to leave them untouched.”

Another character who has scars from his childhood in Bulikov, is Vohannes Votrov, Shara’s high school sweetheart.  I could easily picture Vohannes being of Scandinavian or even Eastern European descent. Vohannes is affluent, a political figure and quite frankly a damaged individual.  Growing up under the Kolkanstani household, pain and suffering was to be his lot.  For those who followed Kolkan was about penance, suffering and many arbitrary rules.  His life choices would squarely put him out of sync with how he grew up, as he was one of the worst offenders of the order in which the Kolkanstanis lived by.  His choice of bed partners would have him murdered due to Kolkanstani law.  In addition, his idea to bring industry from Saypur to raise his people, should have been received with optimism rather than reticence.  He’s flamboyant and brash and you can’t help but like him.  I, for one, wanted to see how far Vohannes would go to achieve his goals and to please those around him.  He reminded me of a more tortured Trent Kalamak (of Kim Harrison’s The Hollows Series), they both have the burden of trying to save their people and by using any means necessary.  He’s conflicted.  His love of his nation and his abhorrence for it’s behaviors and beliefs.  His love of Shara and being true to himself is also a source of conflict.  The man is many contradictions, but in the end, he is someone you would want in your corner.

Mulaghesh is simply amusing to me.  She is the appointed Saypuri governor for Bulikov.  As a former soldier, the political life is lacking for her.  She goes through her days listlessly and functions as a good Saypuri governor should.  However, as the chaos of the book manifests itself, she slips back into her soldier’s leadership quickly, efficiently and I appreciated that about her.  She’s a skeptic and she called a spade a spade or would question the validity of a plan of action or of theories.  While most characters in this book made you chuckle in some way at some point in time.  I found myself chuckling at her more, because, well, she’s a warhorse.  You can take the warhorse off a battlefield, but can you really make that warhorse a show pony?  To that I say a resounding no.  Of Mulaghesh, I pictured an ex-Isreali soldier who never quite lets their guard down.

This leads me to Shara, inevitably the main character of the book.  She is a fairly young operative who investigates the Divine and goes about the business of the Ministry of Saypur of ultimately holding down the Continentals.  We find that she is sort of a child prodigy, arriving at her school of Fadhuri to meet Vohannes, who is a formidable match to her intellectually at a young age, as she did not expect a Continental to be so cerebral and mysterious.  Shara sees things in black and white and is blunt to the point of it being brutally honest to cruel.  Shara is admittedly a historian at heart, despite her spyworks.  She enjoys studying about the Continent and the Divine and what happened hundreds of years before where we are now.  While she is intelligent, she is flawed in her intelligence.  She sees only what she wants to see until reality delivers a cold hard blow to her face.  This bothers me because as someone who is an operative, it would seem that she should be more adept at garnering information and looking at it impartially versus buying whole hog into an idea or circumstance.  For instance, just because Vohannes believed a fact to be true about his brother, does not mean it was true unless she, herself (as an operative) had confirmed said fact independently. But that is not what she did.  She just assumed it to be true because Vohannes never spoke of his brother and believed him to be dead.  It also bothered me that she took credit for Sigrud’s work in defeating the monster, Ugrav.  She devised no plan.  She did not execute said plan.  It was all Sigrud, yet she got the notoriety for being there and checking on him after the battle was won and having been photographed with the true hero.  (Yes, yes…he’s her minion and a Dreyling to boot, so she would get the credit not him…still pissed me off).  I found her to be so smart, that she was also stupid.  She is the academic playing at spy games with moderate success.  However, because the story was so well crafted and moved at such a great pace, I couldn’t really find fault with that, because it rang true.  I could completely buy into the fact that a person who would probably rather be in academia, who has compassion and insight and a thirst for knowledge could be blinded by only the facts they want to adhere to.  After all, isn’t that how one proves their thesis?  Of Shara, I could see someone of Indian or Middle Eastern descent from her physical description.

The many different divinities in this text was interesting but didn’t overwhelm the book.  While their names are repeated often in the book.  The ones that stand out are Olvos, Kolkan and Jukov.  These stand out mainly because you have a goddess that disappears before all hell breaks loose.  So no matter what their history says, no, not all the gods are dead, at least by my logic.  Kolkan is a sadistic god with such arbitrary rules like “Don’t eat bright colored fruit and toss away the seeds” or “Do not have white stone floors” and enjoys providing pain, punishment and suffering to his followers.  To that I say no thank you.  Then Jukov, is a trickster.  I’m sure he could be fun, but I find him a bit macabre in how he deals with things, for instance luring a priest into his lair, turning him into a woman to have relations with him and then turning him back and forth.  Really?  Just because he could?  Each god described had a wonderful and full story to each of what they believed, their characteristics and the characteristics of their followers.

Mr. Bennett has ensured that I want to read the next installment.  In fact, he has me craving the next installment like I crave the next from Justin Cronin.  I’d gladly buy the hardback copies of each author’s work and display prominently on my bookcase.  They both prove, along with Jonathan Maberry, that a well thought out, well executed novel is worth the wait.  To any aspiring author, if you are truly trying to hone your craft and not try to get rich off of drivel, read these authors.  They are a great example of modern writers who are worth their salt.

With Which Character Did You Most Identify:  Sigrud.  [Character Esbe Most Wanted to Flog:  Shara (Yes, I did like her, but I also wanted to flog her for her stupidity at times.  Characters Esbe Would Most Likely Rely On:  Sigrud and Mulaghesh.  Character with which Esbe Most Likely Would Want to Share a Cuppa or a Drink: Vohannes.]

Esbe read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.

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Elle Tea: 

Scoring Loved Book

Make tea, not war!  If I had to come up with a tagline for this book, that’s what it would be.  I mean… tea is everywhere!  Everyone drinks it!  The whole novel is about fighting: gods fighting gods, gods fighting men, men fighting gods, men fighting men, countries ripping themselves and each other apart for power – powerPOWER!  But at the end of the day, when all the fighting and politics and arguments are over, everyone goes home to lick their wounds and drink…


And I believe that was completely intentional.  If you look at the world now, full to the brim as it is with warfare and politics, scandal and corruption, everyone hating and fighting and killing…

But at the end of the day, we all just want to go home.  We all just want to be somewhere safe with people we care about.  We just want a moment of peace.  (And some of us still want that cuppa, ammaright?)

This was one of the best books I’ve read in a while – tea or no tea.  The writing style is fabulous, with an entirely immersive tale that is just real enough to be familiar but imaginative enough to make taking that dose of reality a little bit easier.  And it’s a delightful twist on fantasy that moves away from the swords-and-dragons, elves-and-dwarves and gives us instead magic that is centered around technology and Divines who seem as puzzled and afraid of their own followers as their followers are of them.  And underneath it all is the age-old philosophical debate: Did gods create man, or did man create gods?

“Humans are strange… They value punishiment because they think it means their actions are important – that they are important… it’s vanity.”

It was that blend of philosophy, realism, and fantasy that really interested me most throughout this novel, I think.  As BillMo states, there is quite a bit of political maneuvering going on – the civilization that once commanded the world is now being subjugated by a country that was, not so very long ago, completely subservient to them.  This is factual history: empires rise and eventually fall, often to the most unlikely foes imaginable – most glaringly, this fantasy setup reminded me of the very real sacking of “the eternal city” of Rome by the barbarian Visigoths, which was described by a contemporary as: “The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken,” an idea that stretches across both of the fantastical countries in Bennett’s novel: Saypur and the Continent.  As with most hostile takeovers – real and imagined – the rising power seems to forget everything about history and, rather than absorbing the culture of the loser and working to successfully assimilate them gradually over a period of time, they instead completely annihilate everything that does not “fit” their ideals: the shining capital is destroyed, the gods are slain, and the history and culture of the losing faction is denied – on pain of death.  Thus, rather than accomplishing a true takeover, they have instead simply switched roles: the conquerors become the conquered, and you can already see the cycle beginning again.

“We are – or WERE – Divinities… We drew power from the hearts and minds and beliefs of a people.  But that which you draw power from, you are also powerless before.  A people believe in a god, and the god tells them what to believe.”

Within Bennett’s amazing world are also six gods, called Divinities for the purpose of this story: Olvos, Kolkan, Jukov, Ahanas, Voortya, and Taalhavras.  Each of these gods was responsible at some time or another for portions of the city, and their individual tastes were reflected in everything from the architecture and environments to the clothes and behaviors of their followers.  While all of the works of the Divinities come into play in City of Stairs, most familiar to the modern reader will be the behavior of Kolkan, with his God / Allah / Yahweh-like series of regulations and fanatical devotion of his followers; Kolkan is a god of fire and brimstone, granting his followers salvation only through him.  He is a demanding god, one who punishes mercilessly and rewards only denial; his impossible and nearly insane rules extend to everything, from the forced modesty of women to avoiding certain foods on certain days, and even to what sorts of fibers can be blended with others within very specific weaves to form cloths for certain uses.  Or, as he himself best stated:  “You will know pain, and through it you will know righteousness.”

“The political insight might wear different clothes in different nations, but underneath the pomp and ceremony it’s the same ugliness.”

Sigrud is an amazing character, and I’ll leave his description and full-on awesome-sauce self to Esbe’s and BillMo’s reviews, as they really fell in with him throughout the novel – though I do want to say that I’d love to put out a Wanted Ad for a secretary  Our protagonist, Shara “Thivani,” is so much more amazing than I feel she was given credit for during our book discussion.  She’s an intelligent woman, and one who is specifically stated as being physically unremarkable and rather ethnic for the tastes of the Continent in which she spends most of her time during this tale; this was, in and of itself, a lovely change from the majority of fantasy novel femmes who spend more time fending off the advances of male characters and using their feminine wiles to manipulate situations.  It’s my opinion that the few flaws she did make in her observations, her inability or unwillingness to make certain calls by the book when it came to a certain individual, were exactly what endeared her most to me; she is an operative, and a damn good one, and she keeps her head and wits about her for a majority of the novel… but it is with one character and one character only that she is most susceptible to foolish behavior.  To me, this turned an otherwise potentially full-metal-bitch into one who still has her heart, even if it steers her astray.  She loves and lost, and, like many of us, her emotions get the better of her when it comes to matters involved with that part of her life; she is mistrustful but still unable to stop herself, despite her own better judgment – and at times, despite the fact that she knows better, she just can’t help but play the part of the spurned and bitter lover.  That is her weakness, and it sets her apart from the more logical Sigrud and more experienced and hardcore character of Mulaghesh.

“I wish I did not know parts of the past; I wish they had never happened.  But the past is the past, and someone must remember, and speak of it.”

There is magic in this story, but it is a different kind of magic than what one might expect from a book classified as “fantasy” – it is believable and wondrous, and it mixes seamlessly and gradually with the technology which surrounds it.  There are the more mundane trains and telegrams, guns and cannons, but alongside them are sea monsters, cups which refill with goat’s milk when placed in the sun, and a small bead which contains the body of a gender-changing saint.

To sum it up, Bennett has woven a fabulous and fantastical murder-mystery within a beautiful and vast world, and does it while addressing core issues of our own: oppression vs. inclusion, fanaticism vs. faith, racism vs. racial pride, and nationalism vs. patriotism.  There’s quite a bit of a wait for City of Blades (next year, aagggh), so if you read City of Stairs and need another fix, I’d highly recommend N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which touches on quite a few similar themes.

In the end, the moral of the story is that only the truth will set you free, and the most powerful weapon in any arsenal is knowledge.  And I’ll leave you with my favorite quote of the entire novel, as it was simply too large to include within the text of my review:

“And Olvos said to them: ‘Why have you done this, my children?  Why is the sky wreathed with smoke?  Why have you made war in far places, and shed blood in strange lands?’ 

And they said to Her:  ‘You blessed us as Your people, and we rejoiced, and were happy.  But we found those who were not Your people, and they would not become Your people, and they were willful and ignorant of You… So we dashed them upon the rocks and threw down their houses and shed their blood and scattered them to the winds, and we were right to do so.  For we are Your people.  We carry Your blessings.  We are Yours, and so we are right.  Is this not what You said?’ 

And Olvos was silent.”

With Which Character Did You Most Identify:  A split between Shara “Thivani” and Olvos.  The former, because she’s highly organized (Listmakers of the World UNITE!  Huuuzzzzaaahh!!!) and extremely independent, but she knows who she can count on and asks no more of them than she knows they can bear – plus, underneath it all she’s an academic historian with a healthy disdain for politics; the latter, because of the earth-mother vibe she had going on, her desire to help from the safety of her anonymity and in a personal way, and her practical view of things: the world has gone to sh*t, and while she refuses to be actively drawn into it anymore, she still can’t help but feel so much.  And Sigrud.  Cuz… hey… Sigrud!

Elle read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.

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Scoring Loved Book

I must commend our members for such an excellent pick: this was a great book and a nice change.  I am not much interested in politics, and this book has quite a bit in it, but it was exceptional nonetheless.  I mean, what’s not to like about a tale of scandal, fighting, love, justice, and what is right?  Or whose idea of what is right, because I believe everyone in this story probably thought they were right; everyone has a cause that they believe in and of course each individual is going to fight for what they believe in.  I loved the writing style, the message, and the story.  I will definitely want to read more by this author and this series.

“In short, a whole way of life – and the history and knowledge of it – died in the blink of an eye.”

Our heroine, Shara, is awesome.  I do so love a story that can give us a strong female character that isn’t always looking for a man to make her happy or whose main mental exercise for the day is predominantly made up of deciding her wardrobe for the day.  I liked her from the very beginning, when she steps right in and takes charge and “cleans house,” and she didn’t let me down for the whole story.

I also liked the general she worked with in Bulikov named Mulaghesh.  The way she is described in the book reminds me of the Trunchbull from Matilda.  This character is a strong soldier and a good comrade.

“We all reconstruct our past, because we wish to see how our present came to be our present – do we not?”

My favorite character of the book is Shara’s right hand man Sigrud.  I like at the beginning when he is thinking about the crowds and how they have “their own psychology, their own habits, their own natures.  They unthinkingly assume specific structures-channels and corridors of traffic, bends around blockade-and break apart these structures in a manner that almost seems choreographed when you watch it.  It’s simply a matter of placing yourself within these structures, like hovering in the still side of a school of fish as it twists and darts across the ocean floor.  Crowds, like people, never truly know themselves.”  I really liked this description.  This painted a perfect picture for me and I could see it happening as I read.  I also find it very true as I think about walking through a crowd and observing what is going on around me.  I think this author can really make you feel as if you are in this other world experiencing exactly what the characters are going through.  I like how Sigrud is exactly how he is, and he is content with this and makes no apologies for it.

“And she is surprised to find that she hates him for this.  It is so terribly, unbearably rude for him to pass through all these years and come out the same person on the other side.”

When the city is described it makes me think about the movie Mirrormask.

There is a part of the story when one of characters informs the other that he believes she is not a girl and he does not think she ever was one.  When she has him explain he states that he has met many girls and you can be a girl at any age and that there is a “flightiness” about them.  He explains that you can be a woman at any age and that she has been a woman she was probably six years old.  He also explains this can happen with men and boys.  I thought this was very insightful because I have known people that have always carried the characteristics of being young and who don’t seem as if they’ll ever grow up (ahem… I believe I am one of those, actually).  🙂

“Envy the fire, for it is either going or not.  Fires do not feel happy, sad, or angry.  They burn, or they do not burn.”

I liked that this book seemed to carry deep meanings.  There is a part when they are talking about one of the Divinities and this Divinity gave her followers the “knowledge that we did not need her to do good things.  That good can be done at anytime, anywhere, to anyone, by anyone.”  I really like this and that I wish more people could think this way.

I’ve included a few of my favorite quotes throughout this review, but a few more that really stood out to me from this novel were:

“We operate within a set of variables that we often cannot influence.”

“In Shara’s estimation, lists form one half of the heart of intelligence, the second half being patience.”

” ‘I never saw a country before,’ says the robed man.  ‘All I saw was the earth under my feet.’ “

With Which Character Did You Most Identify:  Sigrud.

BillMo read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.

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The Divine Ms. Em:

Scoring Great Book

I would have given this book the five-cup rating if not for the first 20%; when I first began reading it, I really couldn’t understand why in the world so many people had given it such sterling reviews… but after that first quarter or so, things began to get interesting…

Shara arrived at Bulikov as a lowly diplomat sent by Saypur, the Continent’s oppressor.  The Continent was once a powerful nation, the seat of the world, with its epicenter being the shining capital city of Bulikov, with its ruling gods and goddesses.  Saypur, on the other hand, was a lowly and oppressed nation that rose up from the ashes of warfare – a war that ended only when the hero of Saypur, the Kaj, defeated and killed most – if not all – of the gods in question.  Now… the conquered are the conquerors, and Saypur rules the Continent – and Bulikov – with an iron fist.

Shara was actually assigned to a mission to uncover the reason for the death of a historian sent by her aunt to study the past Divinities and culture of Bulikov – an interesting twist in and of itself, since the laws of Saypur have strictly and expressly forbidden even the mention of the existence of the Divinities and their miracles.  No one was allowed to practice any of the old religions or even to admit they ever existed.  Saypur locked up any books, articles, and artifacts and anything that would or could be linked to the history and beliefs of the old Bulikov.

This book is amazing how it weaves various themes throughout the story.  Its references to religion, rituals, beliefs, of both the people and the gods and how they intertwined and were reliant on each other and how they influenced each other as described by Olvos.  I loved this book and would highly recommend it.  I loved several of the characters and how they were developed and how they interacted with each other.  Sigrud, Shara’s secretary who had been rescued by her years before, was an awesome character.  He is the massively tough hero with a tortured past that plays an important part of her story.  Mulaghesh, the polis governor of Bulikov, is a gnarly, chain-smoking, battle-scarred veteran that becomes a comrade at arms with Shara time and time again; I love that the author put a “she” in a role that would typically be assigned to a male character.  She was constantly torn between loyalty and doing the right things – with the right thing typically winning out.

One of my favorite themes is very apparent in this book is that truth and knowledge are never a bad thing and that suppressing them can only lead to misunderstanding, ignorance, and tragedy.  There are several turns and twists throughout this book – some you see coming, and some you don’t.  There is a huge twist at the end that I didn’t expect at all.  I highly anticipate the sequel!

With Which Character Did You Most Identify:  Mulaghesh.

Ms. Em listened to the Audible version of this book.

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