With superior power, technology, and a will to conquer, an empire uses that technological advantage to reach out and dominate/subjugate much of the world. The wealth of the world is plundered and bent to the service and the coffers of that empire. No dominance lasts forever, however, and the subjugated peoples learn how to fight back, to drive the invaders out of their lands, to regain independence. More so, as the wheel turns and the empire falls into eclipse and collapse, the formerly subjugated find that they have the geopolitical upper hand over their former colonial masters.
This sounds awfully like the history of our world from the 19th century heyday of European Colonialism to the ‘rise of the rest’ and the relative decline of Western power happening right now, doesn’t it?
City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett’s first turn into secondary world fiction, tackles these concerns in a secondary world context.
Bulikov, the eponymous City of Stairs, was once the center of a global empire. With the power of the Gods behind them, they once strode the world like a colossus. Resistance, while endemic in their conquered territories, was futile until a way was found to do the unthinkable: kill the Gods. In the wake of deicide and the resulting devastation known as The Blink, Bulikov and the rest of the Continent has fallen into collapse and ruin. In the meantime, Ghaladesh, formerly under the boot of Bulikov, has risen to world power, to the point where the colonized now find themselves in a superior position over their former masters.
The death of a professor studying the legacy of the fallen colonial power brings Shara Trivani to Bulikov. Ostensibly, she is there as a new cultural ambassador — a junior diplomat post at best — and there to see to the remains of her friend’s death. The truth of why Shara is there, who and what she really is, and what she will find in Bulikov is much more complicated.
Although there is a panoply of interesting characters to be found in City of Stairs, especially the clear breakout character, Sigurd, it is Bennett’s heroine who is the character tentpole of the narrative. The character’s layers and depth are deeply plumbed throughout the story. As our primary point of view (and frankly the best and most well written of the POVs in the novel), Shara is an intensely interesting and opinionated character. Bennett expertly filters Bulikov and the strangeness of the city and her situation through her perspective. The spy pretending to be a junior diplomat is hardly a new trope, but Bennett pulls it off admirably.
The novel’s themes are as well crafted and as interesting as elements of the character, the setting, the plot and the conflict. The uses and nature of history, its manufacture, its polishing and alteration, and its denial. Post-colonialism, and the legacies of the past, and present of Empire and geopolitical dominance, when a power imbalance changes radically. If science fiction novels often use the future to speak of the present, fantasy novels often use the past, or forms of the past, to speak of the here and now. In the changing landscape of the world around us, Bennett’s novel speaks to our 21st century world.
Without question, City of Stairs is Bennett’s best work yet, and like Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire, it shows a clear and distinct leveling up of the writer. Both writers, with a few novels under their belts, are clearly gearing up to take their place among the most interesting writers today. Both novels feature strong protagonists, intriguing secondary worlds, and dialogue with issues of Empire in a distinct 21st century post-colonial frame. Hurley’s work is even more complex and much more widescreen, with a more complicated secondary world and frame. Bennett’s City of Stairs is an ornately manufactured damascene steel longsword. Hurley’s The Mirror Empire by contrast is a finely manufactured lucerne hammer, with a blunt head, a top spike, and a reverse long spike for good measure. Both of them are enchanting.
City of Stairs, for me, also reminds me strongly of the work of author Paula Volsky. In the 1990’s, Volsky wrote a quintet of novels set in a secondary world reminiscent of 18th and 19th century Earth, in an age of colonialism, rising ‘European’ powers, modernization, cultural clashes and the problems of empire. Illusion (1991) is set in Vonahr, in the throes of a very French Revolution-esque revolt against a tyrannical monarchy, with a young woman’s power key to Vonahr’s future. The Wolf of Winter (1993) is set in Rhazaulle, a Russia-like land where dark and forbidden necromancy plays a key role in a threat to the Ulor’s (read: Czar’s) rule, with the Ulor’s son and daughter on the front lines of that conflict. The Gates of Twilight (1996), set in one of Vonahr’s colonial possessions, looks at the problems of colonialism from the perspective of a colonial officer trying to navigate the injustice of empire; it explores what an oppressed people will do in response to that injustice. The White Tribunal (1997) is set in Upper Hetzia, an analogue to one of the 18th century German states, with a Count of Monte Cristo tale of revenge and retribution in the midst of dark magic. Finally, the rollicking adventure, The Grand Ellipse (2000), a 2001 World Fantasy award nominee, is a “Great Race” style narrative, as an adventuress strives to win an around-the-world race in order to find a secret that will protect Vonahr from its menacing neighbor.
The naming conventions of City of Stairs, right away, evoke the colonial powers and the colonized powers of Volsky’s pseudo 18th and 19th century world and was the first thing that reminded me of Volsky’s novels. Her novels, like City of Stairs, also often features strong heroines and female characters with agency, often navigating massive upheaval and struggle. The uses of magic, the varieties of magic, and what that magic has to do with the divine also make for interesting contrast and parallels to Bennett’s novel. Both authors are extremely clever and inventive, and both like to use magic in ways subtle and not so subtle in teasing out plot and character. The evocative worldbuilding shows strong parallels between Volsky’s work and Bennett’s novel as well. It was almost too easy to imagine Bennett’s Bulkov as a city in Volsky’s Grewzland Imperium and the world power Ghaladesh as just another name and the future history of Volsky’s colonially dominated Aveshq.
The novels of Volsky and Bennett — although City of Stairs was written without knowledge of the former — form a dialogue and a spectrum. Volsky’s work is concerned with colonialism and the problems of empire as they form and reach out to dominate all within reach; Bennett’s work is concerned with what happens when that empire falls and the formerly dominated rises to geopolitical power over those that formerly ruled them.
Volsky’s work remains eminently readable, and is well worth seeking out to this day. Bennett’s City of Stairs and Hurley’s The Mirror Empire are strong contenders for spots on my Hugo nomination ballot.