gods

‘Like looking into glass’: not a review of City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

cityofstairsI’ve been rereading City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett for the past couple of days. Yes, rereading. The book is freshly out, but I had read the ARC back in April and wanted to read it again. I have terrible memory for books. I remember if I liked them or not, but plot details evaporate from my brain in mere days. It’s rather inconvenient, professionally speaking, because customers tend to not be amused by sales pitches like ‘You should read this book. It’s about things.’

I also wanted to read it again because I was going to write a proper reviewI even made notes and used post-it notes. But now that I’m actually sitting here in front of the screen, I don’t think I need to add to already enormous buzz that surrounds this book. There are many reviews out there (see, for example, this blog post on Bennett’s shiny new website, and while you are there, check out maps and images of Bulikov). You can read or skim them at your leisure, but one thing you will probably take away from this activity is that City of Stairs is amazing and worth your time.

I liked this book so much because it hit all the right notes for me. Deities in fiction, check (dead ones? even better). An Eastern European-esque culture, check (I could probably write another naming essay like I did for Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins). City as a character and great world-building, check. Mysterious artifacts, check. All of this is excellent. Pick it up.

Really, the only problem with this book is the hooded dude cover.

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Rebuilding the TBR pile

There are times when I start five or so books and then get mired in a seemingly endless, yet completely unsatisfactory, readathon. I get busy and forget about three of those, and the other two turn out to be mediocre, or just not the books I want to read. I read two chapters of one and a few pages of the other. This goes on for days.

And so this is where we are now, with five books stuck in progress. It is clearly time to give up and rebuild the currently reading and TBR piles.

Here are the new candidates:

justcity

Reading decision was made for me by Tor with this shiny e-arc (the book is out January 2015)! I did not particularly like My Real Children, but Walton remains one of my favorite writers. Getting my hands on this is a cause for celebration. It involves time-traveling Pallas Athene, Apollo, and Sokrates, among others. Besides, I was just saying a few days ago how much I love deities in my SF.

Next is The Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias. I seem to recall reading good things about this one when it came out.

darkling

I think I am in the mood for a first contact story. I also enjoy weird aliens. I’m just a few pages in, and these appear to be crustacean, or at least have pincers.

And so as not to get carried away, I am going to stop at two.

God is dead: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

Gods, like men, can die. They just die harder, and smite the earth with their passing. 

I am a sucker for gods and religion in my SF books. Maybe it’s because these subjects remind me of reading myths. I loved the Greek mythology tome I had as a kid. The gods in it were wise, petty, mighty, vain, all of the above, occasionally at the same time. Those myths were great stories to start with, so it’s no surprise that I later transitioned to reading strange and speculative fiction.

three-parts-deadThree Parts Dead has organized religion, worship, faith, and gods in spades. At its most basic, it is a mystery novel. It begins with the death of Kos Everburning, the god who keeps the city of Alt Coulumb running. His death is discovered during the watch of a novice priest Abelard. It later appears that Kos’s death might have involved some foul play.

Enter Tara Abernathy, a necromancer recently graduated from the Hidden Schools. She arrives in the city with her boss, Elayne Kevarian, and the two attempt to solve this case with the help of chain-smoking Abelard, a vampire, a servant of Justice (see: police officer), and even some gargoyles.

Gladstone writes a great tale, bringing all these characters together and feeding the reader details and tidbits that become important later, which makes Three Parts Dead a lot of fun to read. What he also does, however, is build a fascinating world and set out some interesting rules. Rules, for example, that govern humans’ relationship with their god. In essence, gods are business people. They operate by contract. You provide worship, they provide power (as my late teacher of Irish used to say, ‘there are no nice goddesses, only successfully propitiated ones’). And so gods can die by owing more power than they could provide. Something drained Kos of power and left him a lifeless husk.

But wait, not all is lost. You can, in fact, bring the god back to life. Or some semblance of life. It probably won’t be the same god, but it will be good enough for government work, as it were (Justice, in fact, used to be Seril, a goddess that had died in God Wars). Hence the summoning of Kevarian and Tara, both necromancers.

Gladstone’s worldbuilding offers many other cool things to the reader. The idea of Craft is fascinating. It sounds like ordinary magic, but its origin is quite interesting. It’s ‘half art, half science’, and it was born from ‘the awe at how well divine hands has made a thing, and the insatiable need to improve on that design’. It almost sounds like the origin of alchemy, an attempt by humans to improve on nature. The expression of Craft itself seems almost Harry Potter-like, theatrical. It’s not always clear how the Craft works, but it seems the kind of magic you want to have (you know, the kind that comes with the ability to levitate objects).

The characters, the rules, and the world make Three Parts Dead much more than just a SFnal mystery novel (as Abelard says, ‘could we please not talk about God as if He were a corpse on the floor?’). I already have Two Serpents Rise on my nightstand, and Full Fathom Five, Gladstone’s newest book, will definitely end up in my hands as well.