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City of Stairs
By Robert Jackson Bennett

Discussed June 2015

Buy City of Stairs from Amazon.com

Dramatis Personae

The Saypuri:

  • Ashara “Shara Thivani” Komayd
  • Minister Vinya Komayd
  • Dr. Efren Pangyui
  • Governor Turyin Mulaghesh
  • Chief Diplomat Troonyi
  • Captain Nesrhev
  • Pitry
  • Nidayin

The Continentals:

  • Vohannes Votrov
  • Volka Votrov
  • Irina Torskeny
  • Ernst Wiclow
  • Ivonya Restroyka

In a class of his own:

  • Sigrud

The Divinities:

  • Olvos the light-bearer
  • Kolkan the judge
    • (Urov the punisher)
  • Taalhavras the builder
  • Ahanas the seed-sower
  • Voortya the warrior
  • Jukov the trickster

Questions

  1. Did you finish the book?
  2. Did you like the book? Why or why not?
  3. City of Stairs draws heavily on the espionage and mystery genres. Did you feel these were integrated well with the fantasy setting? How did you feel about the plot and pacing?
  4. Did you find miracles (which Shara describes as “like having a form preprinted and filled out and handing it in to get exactly what you want”) an interesting magic system? How did you feel about the twist regarding Shara’s heritage, which explains why miracles work so well for her?
  5. In the post-colonial world of City of Stairs, the conquered have become the conquerors after centuries of repression. How did you feel about the book’s handling of colonialism? Did you find the political actions of the Saypuri (and the reactions of the Continentals) believable?
  6. In less than eighty years since the overthrow of the Divinities, the Continent has all but forgotten its own past. Did you find the success of the Worldly Regulations plausible? To what extent do you believe history and religion can be separated from other cultural strands, such as food, dress, and art?
  7. Olvos, the last surviving divinity, argues that it’s essential for the Continentals to forget their imperialistic past; “For a caterpillar to become a butterfly, it must forget it was ever a caterpillar at all.” Do you agree with this philosophy? What would it look like if applied to the real world?
  8. “People enjoy being told what to do,” Sharra says, summarizing why Kolkan remained popular as his edicts grew stricter and even after he vanished. Olvos later expands on this, explaining that people “value punishment because they think it means their actions are important” and dismissing this belief as “vanity.” Do you believe Bennett intends this as commentary on the role of religion in our own world? Do you agree?
  9. The Saypuri have an unusually high technology level for secondary-world fantasy, with telegraphs, cars, trains, and electricity. Did you enjoy this aspect of the setting? Meanwhile, we are told that the Continentals “had trouble teaching science and basic physics, since for so long things here didn’t function by basic physics.” Do you agree that science and religion would conflict in this way?
  10. Vohannes, Sharra’s childhood lover, is attracted to men. Did you read him as bisexual or gay? How did you feel about his role in the novel and his characterization as a closeted queer man?
  11. Did the novel do anything interesting with gender roles? How did you feel about the contrast between egalitarian Saypuri society and the heavily patriarchal Continent?
  12. A sequel, featuring Turyin Mulaghesh, is due out in January. Will you read it?

Bonus content:

Official art depicting the City of Bulikov.

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