“City Of Stairs” by Robert Jackson Bennett (2014)

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“‘I believe the question, then,’ says Vasily Yaroslav, ‘is one of intent.'”

Some books feel like spending time in the embrace of an old friend. Others feel as refreshing as diving into a swimming pool on a hot summer day. But there are always the ones that put you in mind of cloying, claggy swamps, where every step you take is prefaced by ten minutes of wiggling your leg out of the quagmire with that shlurp sound, only to find you’ve lost your shoe. Again. I emerge from City Of Stairs after over a week, muddy, sweaty and looking for somewhere with a power shower.

The first in a series, this novel takes place in the ancient city of Bulikov, central location on the vast Continent. The Continent was once ruled by six Divinities (i.e. gods), each of which had their own followers, belief system and powers. That is, until the nation of Saypur attacked as part of its plan to dominate the globe, and killed all the Divinities. In doing such, all the miracles and magic that they had performed immediately failed, and the Continent, Bulikov in particular, was ripped asunder. Climate changed in an instant, buildings collapsed into one another, and staircases and doors suddenly led nowhere.

After the suspicious death of Dr Efrem Pangyui, a diplomat researching the history of the Continent – a history that, under Saypuri rule, is never to be mentioned or acknowledged – a descendant of the man who killed the gods, Shara Komayd, makes her way into Bulikov under false pretenses to find out exactly what happened. Accompanied by her terrifyingly large bodyguard Sigrud, she soon takes command of the diplomatic mission and soon learns that something is going on beneath the surface. There are talks of an uprising, and if anyone finds out her true identity, there is sure to be hell to pay. And more urgently, it seems that someone has gained access to the Warehouse, where all miraculous items from before the Blink (the disappearance of the Divinities) are being stored. She has a week to get to the bottom of things, before her commanding officer – and aunt – pulls her back to Saypur.

A review on the back of the book notes similarities to three other authors, and I have to say that I can complete see where they’re coming from. SciFiNow notes that the talk of ancient gods seems reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin also seems relevant, both stories being full of scheming politicians and worlds that feel familiar but off-kilter. The one I was most strongly reminded of, though, was China Miéville’s The City & The City, featuring as it does a city that is uniquely damaged. I think the apparent instant similarity to his work that I felt when I plucked the book from the bookshop shelf last summer was what attracted me most to it. As it is, I prefer Miéville.

The novel’s primary redeeming feature is that while it’s set in a fictional world, it hasn’t gone for the old fantasy cliches that seem to require all fictional races are based on the Europeans. Saypur seems Arabic or Indian in its nature, while other cultures, Sigrud’s Dreyling identity, for example, feels Russian, or maybe even Icelandic. All the characters names have a foreign feel to an uncultured Englishman such as myself. The way the gods work is also fascinating. Because the Continent had conflicting beliefs on how it was formed, each creation myth was the truth in the area that that specific god ruled over. This is why everything fell apart so quickly when the gods died – there was no unified truth of reality. Frankly, it’s quite a clever piece of writing.

Unfortunately, it’s let down by the characters. I wasn’t particularly moved by any of them, nor especially interested. It’s refreshing that many of the central characters are women, and women of colour at that, but a lot of them seem to run to cliches in ways the world building doesn’t. The right characters make it through to the end, sure, and there doesn’t seem to be much that it has cost them to do so. The book ends on a note of hope, which I suppose is what you want in a book, but it didn’t inspire me to read on.

I’m not going to say it’s a bad book, because I don’t think it is. The mythology is interesting, the world is thorough and different, and there are some very interesting and creepy beasts to do battle with, but there’s definitely something missing. I never felt like any of the jeopardy they were going through was really all that bad, despite some of it really being quite horrific. I also never quite brought myself to care properly about any of the characters. It’s a world I could paddle in for a long time, but I never wanted to take the plunge.

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“The City & The City” by China Miéville (2009)

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the-city-and-the-city“I could not see the street or much of the estate.”

It’s never been uncommon to see towns and cities twinned with others. The town where I live, for example, is twinned with places in both Germany and France. I suppose the reason is for international relations, although aside from reading the names of these places on the signs on the town’s edges, I’ve never heard word about them. I bring this up simply because this is a story where the idea of town twinning reaches new levels of strangeness.

The story takes us to the eastern reaches of Europe – that’s as clear as it gets – to the city state of Besźel, a decaying city that has seen better days. It does however have one very bizarre and unique quirk – it shares the same space as a second city, Ul Qoma. The cities overlap almost entirely, sharing a location but very little else. Each city has its own language, fashions, currency, citizenry, and even different names for the streets, and certain streets and buildings that only belong in one city or the other, meaning all citizens have to ignore – “unsee” – all the ones that aren’t in their city. And it’s not just buildings – people cannot notice certain people, vehicles and even trees, lest they be accused of breach and are whisked away to a place by strange figures whose activities are the stuff of rumour and legend.

Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad in Besźel has lived there all his life, and it is second nature to him to avoid seeing anything in Ul Qoma. However, he becomes involved in a murder that looks more complicated than he would like. A student from the university in Ul Qoma has been found dead in Besźel, suggesting that it’s an obvious case of breach. He implores his higher-ups to activate Breach, the shady organisation that seems to exist between the two cities, protecting everyone from seeing what they shouldn’t see. However, when evidence comes to light that the body has transported legally across the border, he finds that Breach will not be invoked. He must now solve the case, even if it means going into Ul Qoma itself.

I had a few problems with the book. Frankly, Miéville is a very good writer, really rather excellent, but the language used here is pretty dense and this is not an easy-going read. You’ll need to keep your wits about you to remember the laws, how the city is divided, and also everybody’s names. Being set in a fictional location on the edge of Europe, it makes use of linguistics from that area, although possibly fictionalised to some degree. Names are heavy on accents and unfamiliar to English eyes spellings, although most can be guessed at. Tyador, for example, is possibly just a translated version of Theodore. It’s irrelevant, but the large number of unfamiliar names can be a bit daunting and more than once led me into confusion as I had to unpick the threads and work out who was who again.

However, aside from the language and the unusual names, I have very little negative to say about this book. The idea of the split cities is handled excellently, and the exposition explaining about it all is natural and never feels forced. It’s not somewhere I’d like to live – I’d imagine it to be a very difficult life for outsiders to acclimatise to (in-universe, all visitors to either city must undergo exams and tests to make sure they understand what they’re letting themselves in for). It answers most questions you imagine you’d have about such a world, including what happens if there is a car accident between vehicles from Besźel and Ul Qoma, how the citizens actually get from city to city, and how crosshatching works. In fact, the only thing that’s never explained is how the two cities came to be like this, although that’s mostly because no one seems to know – it all happened far too long ago. Brief glimpses of characters from other countries (mostly Canada) show that the world has a whole is not unfamiliar with the idea of these twinned cities, and no one seems all that concerned by it. It does appear to be the only city in the world though that has such a quality.

At the end of the day, it’s just a crime thriller, but one set in an enchanting and very interesting world, showing all the complications that arise when a policeman can stand mere metres away from a killer, and yet not be able to touch them because, by law, they are in different places. Miéville is, I have read, one of the writers of the “new weird” and I totally see that. I’ll return to him again.

Ever wondered if everything is really as it seems? Maybe there’s an alternate series of events running just below the surface of our own world? Have a look at one possible answer in my debut novel, The Atomic Blood-Stained Bus, available now on Amazon, iBooks and SmashWords.