In my late teens and early twenties, I read a fair amount of sci fi/speculative fiction, but over the decade I have spent more time on the fantasy end of the spectrum- children's, YA, and adult - but not much that I would classify as sci fi. I sometimes find both sci fi and fantasy difficult to fall into because I have to work so hard to make all the world-building real inside my head instead of just relaxing and enjoying the story. I decided to give City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett a try based on reviews from GoodReads and BookRiot. Checking books out of the library gives me more freedom to go out on a limb like this, just in case I do not want to finish - though once I bother to start a book I do try to finish.
It took me two weeks to read City of Stairs, which felt like slow going, but I think being distracted by the holidays and having my family around was as much a barrier as slogging through the new world of Bulikov, the City of Stairs. Bulikov is the former seat of power for six divinities and the humans under their auspices. Until seventy years ago, the inhabitants of Bulikov and the Continent ruled ruthlessly over the rest of the world. Then a mysterious member of a wealthy collaborator family managed to kill the Divinities and the balance of power swung to his country, the former slave state of Saypur.
As the novel starts, a Saypuri academic is murdered in Bulikov and Shara Thivani, a Saypuri intelligence agent masquerading as a mousy cultural ambassador shows up to investigate. I liked the character of Shara, but despite the frequent reminders that she was small and wore glasses, her personality was anything but mousy. This inconsistency was one of the few things that bothered me about the book. She is one of several powerful women in City of Stairs, which is nice coming from a young male writer.
The story is really a parable of power and doctrine, both religious and political and what happens when they are combined. There are obvious echoes of Cold War post-Stalin/post-Mao international relations. I love reading examinations of the destructive nature of religious belief and practice, especially when the analysis is woven within the story rather than feeling like a very obvious object lesson. Character development could be better, and maybe it will be in the sequel Bennett is working on, since he will not have to work as hard at conveying the new old world of the Continent. If you want help visualizing Bulikov, check out the artist renderings by John Peterson, on Bennett's website. The illustrations would serve as a foundation for a graphic novel or an adult animated film. Last, but not least, I love that all the story lines are wrapped up nicely while leaving room for a sequel, which will apparently feature one of the intriguing side characters from City of Stairs, military and political leader Turyin Mulaghesh, another very strong woman.
If you are looking for accessible and very contemporary scifi, everything is here: murder mystery, political intrigue, SF world building, and social commentary.