Rating: 4.5/5 stars
A truly wonderful start to a trilogy and this is also one of the most original world-building I’ve ever had the chance to experience in a novel.
City of Stairs is the first book in the Divine Cities trilogy written by Robert Jackson Bennett and let me tell you guys something, this is one of those series that has been sitting in my TBR pile for way too long; since March 2017. Not only that, I’m ashamed to admit that it was also one of those series that I have considered removing from my TBR due to diminishing interest caused by the TBR mountain of oppression. I’m so damn pleased I didn’t, better late than never because this book was really great and a unique experience in a genre that’s filled with the medieval setting; I don’t mind medieval but it’s awesome to read a fantasy book with different flavors too.
Even though I’m calling this book a high fantasy, I actually have no idea what’s the real proper genre to categorize this book. The story is a murder mystery in, taking place in a high fantasy world that also has some elements of sci-fi, but I do know that this is a great book; it even almost made it to my “favorites” shelves!
The plot in City of Stairs began with the murder and our main character and her secretary/bodyguard—Shara and Sigrud—are in charge of catching who the killer is. This, of course, eventually become more complex as the story progressed and what first started as a simple murder mystery story, ended up becoming something so much bigger and dangerous in scale and tension. The story itself is a slow burn, full of compelling politic and thought-provoking religious discussion. To be honest, it took some time for me to get comfortable with the story and setting of the book—around 25% give or take— and this is actually the only minor issue I have on the book. But believe me, don’t let the beginning put you off, it’s a book worth continuing because it’s a book that keeps on getting better as it progressed and in my opinion, the world-building alone was truly enough to make this book a must-read for any SFF fans.
“Life is full of beautiful dangers, dangerous beauties... They wound us in ways we cannot see: an injury ripples out, like a stone dropped in water, touching moments years into the future.”
Most of the story took place in the city of Bulikov, a Russian inspired city that used to prosper because of the miracles and powers provided by the Divinity (the gods in this world). However, these divine protectors were killed, and it ends up leaving the city of Bulikov a mere shadow of its former supremacy. There’s also Saypur, another city in the book and this one is inspired by India. These two inspiration for the setting alone are something incredibly rare in the fantasy genre, at least that’s how it is for me. But what makes the world-building super good was how phenomenal, intricate, and original it was. The integration of the lore, history, religions, culture, mythologies and divinities, into every single thing in the book was magnificent. The world-building was divine in quality and the literal sense of the word.
“The Divine may have created many hells", he says, "but I think they pale beside what men create for themselves.”
As always, characters remain the most important aspect and I’m pleased to say that I really enjoyed reading these character’s tales. There are three dominant protagonist that drives the story: Shara, Sigrud, and Mugalesh. In my opinion, Robert Jackson Bennett is what you call an efficient writer. For example, Bennett didn’t spend a lot of time on character’s contemplation. Let’s take Sigrud, even though he’s a side character and didn’t talk that much, he actually ended up becoming my favorite character from the book. This is because Bennett relied mostly on characters’ dialogues and actions to flesh out their characters.
Sigrud Je Harkvaldsson by Chanh Quach
Overall, City of Stairs was truly a captivating and divine start to a trilogy. Reading a book like this in the genre was like inhaling a breath of fresh air. For those of you who are looking for an original SFF book that contains a great plot, characterization, prose, and most of all, phenomenal world-building, then I urge you to give this book a try because in my opinion, City of Stairs was truly worth the climb.
“...history, as you may know, is much like a spiral staircase that gives the illusion of going up, but never quite goes anywhere.”
Rating: 4/5 stars
The penultimate installment in the Heartstrikers series could’ve been the best in the series so far.
A Dragon of a Different Color could’ve been 5 stars, but it was bogged down by too much info dump, which I’ll get into later. Following the same tradition as the third book, the story picked up immediately after the end of the previous book. The plotline was told within two main storylines, one in the Heartstriker Mountain surrounding Julius, Chelsie, and Qilin, while the other one is more focused on world-building and the magic in this series. All eventually converge in the end and the book ends on a cliffhanger that prepares the series for the big conclusion in the last book.
“It’s one of humanity’s worst traits. Good intentions justify all kinds of terrible behavior.”
I always emphasize the importance of characters in books and this book clearly show the benefit of wonderful characterizations. The story itself was quite predictable, and yet I always had this “I can’t wait for this moment to happen” thought crossing my mind, and get this, they were all satisfying because I’m just so invested in the characters. Aaron completely blew my expectation away, there are actually a lot of things that I usually hate in my fantasy read here. Romance? It’s here. Keeping secrets assuming things won’t work out? It’s here. Predictable storyline? Here. However, Aaron did them exceptionally well that I can’t help but be completely immersed in the way it all plays out.
My favorite part of the book definitely goes to Chelsie and Qilin’s storyline. Now, Chelsie’s past was utterly predictable, I know a lot of readers would’ve seen her past revelation coming from the previous book. But I certainly didn’t know that the way her past unfolds in the story would become not only my favorite part of the book but also one of the best section of the entire series so far. It was magnificent and the inclusion of Qilin, the Chinese Dragon which is also the symbol of luck in real life, was amazing. The Luck magic system surrounding Qilin could’ve been a deus ex machina plot device but with a simple twist, Aaron changed that perception and made it super compelling and badass.
Julius infuriating ‘nice’ attitudes from the previous book is starting to pay off too. Seriously, this guy talks a LOT. He may be nice but the words that spewed out of his mouth is actually the most manipulative out of the entire dragons’ clan, bending everyone to his will with his nice attitude. If he exists in real life, I’m sure he could win the presidential election on his own and shut off that particular president from tweeting. All other characters continue to have great characterizations but the best ones are for Fredrick, Qilin, and Chelsie.
With all these praises, what stopped me from giving a full 5 stars? Simple, the other main storyline contained way too much info dump. I don’t even know how many actually made it to my head because it got really boring at times, it was as if I was sitting in a lecture with someone talking for 2 hours about magic. The word magic was used 786 times in the book, I’m not exaggerating, it was that long, many, repetitive, and I actually fell asleep at one point. It’s not that the world-building or magic explanation wasn’t interesting, it’s the execution of a non-stop lecture method that bored me. By chapter 10 I was seriously at my limit and I almost skipped an entire chapter. I kept on hoping to get back to Julius’s POV instead and that’s not a good thing. It’s not until chapter 14 out of 17 that this particular POV finally grabbed my attention again.
That said, the last 20% was once again brilliant. All the buildup from the beginning of the series is starting to pay off and yet it also leaves the major revelations for the last book. Do know that the book ends on a cliffhanger that most likely will push the reader to continue to read the next/final book in a heartbeat. Although this installment dragged a lot at times, Heartstrikers has already become one of the best urban fantasy series I’ve ever read. Obviously, I can’t wait to find out how all Bob’s grand plan unraveled in the last book and I will continue to read the next one immediately.