City of Stairs: People being people, in the most understandable way

Borrowed from randomhouse.com

Genre: Fantasy

Synopsis: Shara Thivani is ostensibly a diplomat being stationed in Bulikov, her nation’s colony (which, in recent history, had been her nation’s colonizer), accompanied by her secretary. In reality, she’s a spy investigating the recent murder of a scholar, and her secretary is a Norse-style warrior. She steps into a delicate, chaotic social situation with certain expectations. And gets more than she bargained for, in terms of enemies, the truth of her history, and the truth of her present. In the midst of an old power awakening, Bulikov will have to face its past, and our protagonists will have to decide how to shape its future.

Series: Can be a standalone, but there will be a sequel starring secondary characters from this novel.

POV: Third person multiple

Romance: No. Some in the backstory.

Preview: Here.

What a phenomenal story.

The backstory is revealed in layers. This means that as readers, we’re left guessing as to where the figures in history stand on a moral scale. We aren’t given enough information to immediately pinpoint who was right and who was wrong. And that’s pretty cool. Because we have to think about it, and we have to think about what each character knows about their past, and and how that affects them. The history becomes more complicated, and more personal for both sides, with each new piece of information.

The basic setup, which is the bare bones of the story, is that the Saypuri essentially threw off their oppressors, their enslavers, breaking the Continent’s power by killing their gods. This had devastating consequences for the formerly all-powerful Continent, as they lost all the blessings of the gods that had made their daily lives function. The death toll was enormous, and the Continent descended into chaos. The newly freed Saypuri, in contrast, began experiencing a new prosperity. So the decision was made that the Saypuri would help the Continent get back on its feet–for instance, the Continent doesn’t have proper sanitation or medical care, because the Divinities always took care of that for them, prior to their deaths. And by help, the Saypuri meant occupy, which leads to the present situation, where a once oppressed country became the occupier in turn.

Again, this is just the bare bones of the story.

The political situation is so many layers of complex, I’m hard pressed to figure out where right ends and wrong begins, or vice versa–and that’s kind of the point. It brings up a lot of questions. Who is the wronged party? (Everyone certainly feels like they are.) Is the current occupation of the Continent different than the former occupation of Saypur, and if so, how? How does a society progress towards equality when both sides are afraid of the other getting power?

Even as I write all of these questions, they feel inadequate and oversimplified. Everyone’s relationship with their history and which parts of it are important to them is different. Every character feels a connection to a different aspect of the history, and some of the mature ones try to understand what it’s like for other people, those in completely different situations. And yet, it’s more complicated than that.

This book is…people. It’s people and every irrational, understandable feeling that we get. It’s people being pushed onto sides whether they like it or not. It’s people crossing the line from feeling to action. And it leans towards optimism, towards the hope that we can reach beyond our shortcomings.

Shara is a non-action hero who never enters a physical fight, yet this in absolutely no way diminishes her awesomeness. She’s a spy who wishes she was a historian, and her main assets are her intelligence and training. She wants to value knowledge and truth, yet doesn’t believe this is always what is needed. In the beginning of the story, she knows how to act respectfully of other people’s circumstances, and does, but is afraid of the consequences of pushing for changes larger than her own behavior. In fact, her job is to uphold the status quo. As the book progresses, she becomes disillusioned with her reality, and gathers the courage to do something different.

Sigrud initially comes off as the silent, disinterested type. That’s not inaccurate, but it turns out to be inadequate to describe him. He’s been doing the same thing for a long time, partly because there isn’t really anything else he could do. Or that he believed he could do. He also really shines in the action scenes. If you replaced a berserker’s rage with cold calculation and a smidgen of irritation, you’d get Sigrud. He fights like a monster, and any witnesses tend to react to his brutality accordingly. It does make for a change of pace with respect to fight scenes. I’m used to more finesse and skill. But Sigrud fights through sheer overpowering force. He doesn’t stop.

Mulaghesh is the aging, badass military-trained governor of a volatile province, who indulges in a decent amount of profanity. She’d also really like to retire somewhere warm and low maintenance. I imagine it takes quite a toll when you know the wrong approach is being taken and you tell your superiors so, and they ignore you.

And Vo is a rich Continental trying to bring industry to the region so that his people could shake off their perpetual poverty, and being foiled at every turn by Saypuri officials, who don’t really want the Continent to rise out of poverty. He’s an educated intellectual in an area where most people are blocked from receiving education. He wants his people to move into a new future, while many of them are desperately holding on to the past.

He also has the misfortune of being raised in an extremely sexually repressed culture, while not being straight or particularly inclined to repress his sexuality. He’s grown to be unashamed of who he is–but the journey took its toll.

And the culmination of that journey (without overtly spoiling anything) is probably one of the few times this could happen to a character like him in a meaningful way. I still can’t help feeling a little torn about it. But if it had to happen, this was the perfect way to do it. Vo did take a stand on being himself no matter what the consequences might be, even knowing he would be made to suffer for it. He made the moment count and even got in a badass, powerful speech that transformed the scene. He was unashamed and unapologetic. And he refused to bow to someone else’s rigid, short-sighted ideas of who he should be, even if that someone is more powerful than him. So there’s that.

Overall, it was a beautiful read.

Favorite Quotes:

“I am sorrowful. I am ashamed. Namely, I am ashamed that I was asked to be ashamed, that it was expected of me…And I am ashamed that, to a certain extent, I did as they asked. I did and, I do hate myself. I hated myself because I didn’t know another way to live…I have been lucky enough to find and meet and come to hold beautiful people in my arms–honestly, some beautiful, lovely, brilliant people–and I am filled with regret that my awful self-hate drove them away.”

“Humans are strange…They value punishment because they think it means their actions are important–that they are important. You don’t get punished for doing something unimportant, after all…The world is full of bad things, hurtful things, but it’s still all about them!”

“We now find ourselves at a turning point in history, when we can either listen to our vanity, and continue down the path we’re on…or choose a new path altogether.”

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