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I've been driving everyone around me up the wall with my complicated reactions to City of Stairs, a fantasy novel that dropped last September. I'm still a little angry about it, but less so now that I have some distance from my immediate reaction of "NO!!!", followed by ugly crying, followed by fuming for hours. When I meet a story that's so wonderful, and I love all the characters, the adventure is fun, the setting is fascinating, and there's a rich sense of history to the world, I want it to be perfect so I can recommend it without reservation. This is another good example of what happens when a book you love just hauls off and socks you in the jaw. Not maliciously, but as we all know, we don't read stories in a vacuum!

City of Stairs is doing so many things right that I'm crushed over the fact that I came away from the book so conflicted. I went through this with God's War by Kameron Hurley, too, where I had to leave the book alone for awhile because I was just so utterly disappointed that everything I loved also existed with one story element that made me so unhappy. Everything we love is problematic, the saying goes, so what's the right balance? What do we do with otherwise excellent books that repeat troubling patterns? Because obviously burning them in a pile while crying bitterly isn't cost effective or a good way to not smell like dead, burned books. Also, you just burned all those other parts you loved. Crap.

cover art for The City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett


Years ago, the city of Bulikov wielded the powers of the Gods to conquer the world. But after its divine protectors were mysteriously killed, the conqueror has become the conquered; the city's proud history has been erased and censored, progress has left it behind, and it is just another colonial outpost of the world's new geopolitical power. Into this musty, backward city steps Shara Thiivani. Officially, the quiet mousy woman is just another lowly diplomat sent by Bulikov's oppressors. Unofficially, Shara is one of her country's most accomplished spymasters-dispatched to investigate the brutal murder of a seemingly harmless historian. As Shara pursues the mystery through the ever-shifting physical and political geography of the city, she begins to suspect that the beings who once protected Bulikov may not be as dead as they seem-and that her own abilities might be touched by the divine as well. (source)


Shara Thivani, who comes to Bulikov with her secretary, Sigrud, to investigate the murder of historian Efrem Pangyui, is so wonderful. I loved her immediately after her first scene with her Aunt Vinya, a politician of note in Shara's home country of Saypur. She's intelligent and clever, but a little bit arrogant and condescending, too. In a scene very early on she talks about jingoism and is rather holier-than-thou about it, which is fascinating as the story that follows dismantles her self-satisfaction over being better than the people who engage in the sort of overt patriotism versus her own, more shadowy version. She's compassionate and kind, but she has important things to learn about the policies she's been enforcing, and it's a treat to go along with her as she unravels the mystery of what's happening in Bulikov and on the Continent itself. Her companion, Sigrud, is interesting on an interpersonal level because how are these people, of all the people in the world, partners? But he's also delightful — he got some of the best action sequences. There's multiple professional and personal relationships here between women like Mulaghesh and Vinya, as well, which is so wonderful. The top Saypuri leaders we get to know are all women, which was extremely satisfying. If they cut each other down or challenged each other, it wasn't because they were women, it was because they were politicians.

But to me the heart of the novel is about history — both personal and national — and how history can shape so much of what we do and who we are, and what the consequences are if we learn new things about history and misuse that information. What kind of people do we become when we learn new truths or have what we think we knew challenged? We often have a choice, and that choice has far-reaching consequences much longer and more influential than we can see. What's more important: the truth or our egos? People or power?

City of Stairs is lively in its writing, canny with its revelations, and boasts a crunchy critique about colonialism that unfolds until the very end, all wrapped up in an intriguing spy narrative package. Even in dark moments there is hope, friendship, love, and compassion. I enjoyed it so much. A summary:

PEOPLE IN POWER: Shara, don't do it.
SHARA: I did it.

and

SHARA: Vohannes, no.
VOHANNES: Vohannes YES.

and

BAD GUYS: *terrible actions*
SIGRUD: *silent decision to beat some guys down*
SHARA: Oh, not again...

But I have some caveats. Although, when don't I? 10,000 points to the person who can name the last book I didn't have caveats over.

Spoilers.

My journey with this novel was a comical romp via an outpouring of emotions on Twitter, via IM, and email. I love this book. That's not a strong enough statement! I love this book. I was convinced that I had just found another book that would show up on my 2015 favorites list. Who knows? It still might, because I'm so used to swallowing troubling parts of narratives and the sting may fade in time. My relationship status with this book for the first 75% was "MARRIED WITH 2 KIDS, FOUR CATS, AN IGUANA AND TWO GOATS."

i just met you and I love you


Even when The Event went down, I still wasn't mad. No, no, anger wasn't my first emotion. First, I cried about it: gross, snot-drenched crying because I'm a sensitive person who got really invested in a book and its characters. I forgot, I suppose, that happy endings don't just happen because you want them to, and I should have been on guard against shenanigans. I was never on guard. I was, in fact, completely unprepared. Plus side: it's a mark of good storytelling that I never saw it coming, even when it was right on top of me, and reacted with Semi-Inappropriate Sadness Levels (twenty minute crying jags not required to read this book; I am just a wimp). Cons: everything else about the development.

why don't you just rip my heart out and eat it in front of me?


Once I was so longer sad, I got angry. I was so mad. On a scale to "stubbed toe" to "the sun going supernova", I was around a "global thermal nuclear war".

admittedly, I lost my cool here


In this novel Shara's childhood ex-boyfriend, Vohannes, is a Continental (as opposed to Saypuri like Shara) and an important political figure in Bulikov. This isn't a Romeo and Juliet story (I was thankful for this), but their sexual relationship as young adults makes Shara's work in Bulikov more intriguing as she interacts with him as someone challenging the status quo. Bulikov is Vo's home, and his family and family's political allies worshipped a god that had a fairly poisonous view of sexuality, homosexuality in particular. Vo is a complicated character; he loves his nation, but he's reviled and abused. He wants to see things changed so people can live happier lives, with less fear, and so his country can start recovering. He's closeted, with good reason, and he and Shara hurt each other dreadfully over it as children. These are all very well done things; I have no beef with them. Vo is an explicitly queer character (shades of bisexuality abound in the minor flashbacks we get), visibly disabled (another intersection which I find depressing), and for some reason I didn't worry about him at all. The novel told me, multiple times: he's not safe, he's in danger, and still for some reason I didn't worry.

I have trouble talking about the patterns and tropes I see regarding queer characters because I am under-read in the language more experienced critics have to unpack these concepts. It's hard to contextualize and speak with appropriate nuance, because reading is so personal. When you read in a path that no other human being on the planet may ever read on again — your reading footprint — it becomes difficult to unsee certain patterns and have them not matter for whatever reason: the book does X right, and we rarely see Y done well so let's just excuse Z. What are we supposed to do in these situations?

City of Stairs did not have multiple queer characters that were as explicitly defined as queer by the text. There were warning signs everywhere. I'm not comfortable enough to say one way or another about Mulaghesh or Pitry, and Shara read as heterosexual, so Vo is all I have, the only one coded to me as queer.

And he dies. He's murdered.

I don't need to go into an in-depth explanation of Bury Your Gays or Gayngst, because they've been talked about to death. I don't think it's a niche topic. But I somehow trusted this book not to do that for some reason I can't even fathom now (my unfortunate idealism?). I'm also troubled because the community has been singing the praises of this novel for months, since before it was available to the plebeian non-reviewing masses. I never heard a peep that this pattern might be in this book. Initially, I figured this was because of spoilers (a character death late in the book? Sure, that's a spoiler.) But looking into it afterward, digging through reviews, searching for any reference, made me feel crazy, because no one called it out. I couldn't find anything and I started to feel like I had made it up, that I had missed an explicit reference to another queer character, that would make this, if not okay, then at least less shocking. Because I didn't think, culturally, we were over the historical storytelling habit of icing the lone, tragic queer. Have we moved on? If so, I'm not ready.

After sitting on it and thinking, I don't think I missed anything and I think what happened was that this pattern that is so painfully obvious to me is invisible to other people who aren't queer, and maybe even people who are who've just accepted the reality of this trope being with us for awhile. This is just a pattern that gets repeated because our culture is sick and queer people can often only affect some types of narratives and their remaining (often straight) characters by dying. This is just a pattern that gets repeated because not everyone sees the pattern because perhaps they haven't ever read or watched enough queer media to be able to see it. My experience of the novel up until this point was 150% positive. It's such an excellent book. But when this happened it broke my heart, even as I understand why for so many other people it was just sad, and not really that notable.

Horrible things happening to queer people aren't verboten. I'm not the Queer Character Literature Police, but there are patterns and tropes that keep getting used that gut me. I'm tired of stumbling into them like a giant story version of a bear trap. I don't want us to be untouchable, but we're already so rare in mainstream genre literature that I'm not ready for stories where we die when there's only one of us — not yet. I'm not there, and I don't think as a genre we're there yet, either, when queer SF is still niche. I'm not sure what else I should take away from that but the same things I took away from it as a kid. Should I go, "Oh, well, I was given a fantastic and complicated female MC who is utterly brilliant, I guess that's fine that queer dude is dead?" and ignore the fact that the lone queer character set up to be bitterly closeted and oppressed ends in his death by the original source of his oppression? And maybe I shouldn't be disappointed that in my initial search I couldn't find a peep of this development among the praise that went, "Hey, wait a minuteā€¦"

Bad things happen to good people, but we're writing stories that don't require people who get the shaft in reality getting it in our fiction, too. I internalized this toxic waste my entire young adulthood, writing queer characters like me (only one per story — don't get cocky!) and killing them off because that's what you were supposed to do. That's what happens to those people; they die. The queers have to be dead, safely partitioned from the rest of the world by the curtain of their mortality to have the correct amount of narrative impact or to be tolerated as part of the story at all. And I regurgitated that nonsense until a writing teacher took me aside and challenged my "Because." to their "Why?"

I'm tired of seeing people like me be dead. I've killed enough of myself in my own writing and I've seen enough of people like young queer me — alone and marginalized — killed in fiction to be utterly heartsick over it whenever it crops up to follow the same tired ruts in the storytelling road. I'm not afraid of us dying, but when we're marginalized in our own lives, and come to fantastic narratives only to watch our people die, where, exactly, is the escapism for us? Where's the entertainment? If none of us survive to go on more adventures, if there's only one of us, instead of three or four, so the death might actually mean something other than repetition of a terrible narrative pattern, how is this a positive?

I'm no literary historian or very well-read on issues of sexuality, but I know my reading past and I know that I expect more from my fiction than what I sometimes get on the axis of gender and sexuality representation. A choice was made in this book to do what it did, and so now it's left to me to figure out how to compartmentalize both my pleasure with the book and my dismay with the way it ended for its queer character. I'm practiced at doing this, unfortunately — less practiced with talking about it, obviously, but an old hand at living with the resolution.

But I desperately hope for a time when I can stop having to step back and go through this process at all. I look forward to being sad only because I liked the character and wanted them to live, instead of being sad about the implications of the death itself. That will be excellent.

Special Thanks!


To Sunil ([twitter.com profile] ghostwritingcow) for assuring me I wasn't a jerk, and providing excellent edits. ♥

Other Reviews


The Book Smugglers, A Fantastical Librarian, Books and Pieces, Pornokitsch, Fantasy Review Barn, nerds of a feather, flock together, yours?

Date: 2015-01-28 10:43 pm (UTC)
rosefox: Green books on library shelves. (Default)
From: [personal profile] rosefox
Tanya Huff did it! Diane Duane did it! In books from major publishers! In the 1990s! And then I guess publishers just stopped buying those books, because I'm sure queer writers didn't stop writing them.

Date: 2015-01-29 12:53 am (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
I kind of think there are still what I'd call 'SFF mainstream' stories being published that fill the world at least with lesbian, gay or bi characters. Idk I have difficulty defining SFF mainstream because there's what's mainstream to everyone who doesn't read a lot of SFF (like Guardians of the Galaxy) and there's the mainstream for people who are already in SFF. Maul, published by Orbit in 2003 is probably the best example I can pull to mind. Jo Walton's Small Change books were published by Tor in 2007 and reissued in 2014. The Summer Prince was a huge hit in 2013 and I'd say definitely SFF YA mainstream(although that contains the death of a main bi-character) is about a world where gay and bi relationships are all around. And maybe Hurley counts as mainstream - at least in the SFF web world (although again character deaths)? Maybe Nalo Hopkinson's output in the 2000's would fit here (although I haven't read anything except The Chaos yet), although I'm never sure how mainstream those books are even in SFF circles.

I don't list these books to go 'see, you're wrong'. I named, what, eight books when thousands are published each year and billions exist - come on, that is not enough or even a positive pattern. I still think these books are few and far between and that you have to dig to find them. And then you have to dig again the find the ones you'll like. And even those books I did name have their own troublesome stuff going on. I'm commenting more to offer some hope that this isn't about an impenetrable wall of modern publishing disinterest which would be pretty depressing because it's so difficult to change. Instead, I say 'sometimes people will put out stuff like this, but it's still a really hard road'. Which, I don't know if it's helpful? It's small comfort I know and it shouldn't be this way at all :(

Date: 2015-01-29 02:41 am (UTC)
rosefox: Green books on library shelves. (Default)
From: [personal profile] rosefox
Jo Walton's Small Change books

should not be recommended to anyone who doesn't like it when queer characters die and/or are not permitted to have romantic happy endings.

Still angry about those too.

Date: 2015-01-29 11:45 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Yeah that's kind of it - I would never rec most of these books for Renay to read because of the unhappy endings & character death but they've got worlds where there isn't just one gay, lesbian and bisexual character (also I haven't read the last book yet because I have a bad feeling). Maybe the change from the 90s is that you could get these worlds & happy endings whereas in 2000s you get these kind of worlds and still get a lot of character death & unhappy endings? I think I learned I should def bump that Tanya Huff book on my bookshelves up my list.

Date: 2015-01-29 11:51 am (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
And that was me. And should read haven't read the last book in Small Change.

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