Aug 272014

Cover for City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett. A grey, hooded figure looms in a cloudy sky. Below him is a city at night, full of skyscrapers and lighted windows.Kirkus: Smart and sardonic, with wry echoes from classic tales (a little “Telltale Heart,” anyone?) mixed up in an inventive, winning narrative. Another dark fantasy by master of the genre Bennett (American Elsewhere, 2013, etc.), a literate swirl of religion, politics, finance and other sources of misery. “You know you are my foremost Continental operative.” Thus a suit to our protagonist, a divinologist who just happens to know her way around a conspiracy theory. Is Bennett’s latest merely an elaborate excuse to make a pun on Dashiell Hammett’s The Continental Op? Probably not, but Shara Thivani, mutatis mutandis, wouldn’t be entirely out of place in an old issue of Black Mask—if, that is, that century-old mystery mag had a soft spot for vaguely Central Asian locales in some not-quite-defined version of the future, along with a little genre-crossing into the horror realm. Shara, an agent of the island state of Saypur, is posted to the vast mainland city of Bulikov after having been abroad for 16 years. Continental Bulikov—a city of ups and downs indeed—once ruled Saypur, but the tables were turned thanks to a conspiracy that involves some considerable theological twists and turns; suffice it to say that Black Mask founder H.L. Mencken would have enjoyed the iconoclasm attendant in Bennett’s account of that tumultuous history. Will the tables be turned once again? That’s what Shara and her sidekick, the monkish but menacing Sigrud, “a hammer in a world of nails,” are there to forestall. The story is winding, the cast of characters sizable but not so sprawling as in many a fantasy; it’s all well and neatly told. Bennett’s invented geography isn’t quite as beguiling as, say, Borges’ library, but he does a thoroughly credible job of worldbuilding; readers will find themselves huffing and puffing their ways across the city and its namesake stairs, which “do not end: they stretch on and on, soft and moist, formed of dark, black clay and loam” and lead to all kinds of odd places.