‘City of Stairs:’ oppressors and their god plot a return to power
In “City of Stairs,” Robert Jackson Bennett imagines a city half-ruined by a former ruling class, whose remnants may be plotting to overthrow the rule of former slaves who wrested power from them.
Special to The Seattle Times
“City of Stairs”
by Robert Jackson Bennett
Broadway Books, 464 pp., $15
In “City of Stairs,” the gods’ reign is over, but their miracles linger. Decidedly partisan, the dead and absent deities of Shirley Jackson Award-winner Robert Jackson Bennett’s fictional Holy Land had been helping their Caucasoid worshippers oppress the rest of this imaginary world for centuries.
As the novel opens, 70 years after a rebel learned how to destroy these divine chauvinists, his descendant comes to the former Holy Land’s capital to investigate a murder.
There the descendant, Shara Thivani, finds a broken cityscape deeply scarred by the abrupt loss of its many sacred structures. Stairs climb to vanished towers and dive into an Earth filled with stranded temples, lost abominations — and, somewhere, an undead god aiding clandestine believers in a plot to overthrow their rulers, once their slaves.
The half-ruined capital is a vivid metaphor for a society decimated and deracinated by its conquerors, and “City of Stairs” is an entertaining yet thought-provoking experiment in racial reversals: whites, for example, are associated with the mysterious and the irrational, while nonwhites are the advocates and beneficiaries of rational thought and scientific progress. As in the real world, however, privilege and cultural blind spots follow power’s ebb and flow, crippling Thivani’s investigation.
Though it’s sometimes obvious that “City of Stairs” was written by a member of a group historically distant from the experience of chattel slavery — the incident supposedly triggering the slaves’ revolution, for instance, is no more horrific than dozens which true-life enslaved peoples have accepted peacefully — entrancing characters, exciting descriptions and piercingly clear action keep the story moving swiftly and surely to a satisfying conclusion.
Seattle author Nisi Shawl reviews science fiction and fantasy for The Seattle Times.