Sometimes the hyped thing lives up to, and explodes its way through, the hype. It's true. It's the case with City of stairs. Thank you, raving voices of the internet, for shoving this book in my face. I don't think I saw a single "Best of 2014 genre fiction" list without this one on it. (That also applies to The goblin emperor, which, yes, is on the to-read list...)
Here is a novel whose characters I want to spend much more time with. I want to buy Mulaghesh some fany cigarillos. I'd like to give Shara some of my microfiber cloths for keeping her glasses clean. (And tea. Oh, Shara, you could have all my tea.) I want to.... well, I might have made a tray of cookies for Sigrud. Insufficient cookies. I want to go to the city of Bulikov.
This isn't helping you understand anything about the book, I think. Okay. Once, there were gods; Divinities. Consequently, there was God's chosen people. And people who were not those people. Unfortunately. Until they found out how to kill the gods!
That's your starting point. See? Don't you want to know what that world is like, later on? Does it still have miracles occurring in it? How is the balance of power - if there is any balance at all? Who hates who, and who hates who the most? Are there really no gods left?
Some reference comparisons; What came to mind was China Miéville, for several reasons, and some of N.K. Jemisin, maybe mostly because that's my most recent memory of a similar blend of normality/divinity. There's also an atmosphere similarity, though - forgive this useless statement - Bulikov feels blue-tinted where the hundred thousand kingdoms felt red and coppery.
Also, reading this, I laughed a lot. And cried a bit, but my tear ducts aren't very choosy when it comes to fiction, so giggling is often better evidence of immersion. I'm kind of gratefully happy when an author tells a story of a certain calibre, but allows for a snigger and some side-eyes every once in a while.
This is to be the start of a series, but it reads just fine as a standalone. For me it was a comfort to know the story would continue, that I will get to see a certain favourite character in the spotlight again. I will be biting my brittle nails, waiting for it to arrive.
Who should read this? Could I say everyone? Well, not people who know themselves to be very sensitive about religion and related criticism and commentary, perhaps. And not readers who find their fantasy to be insufficient if it does not feature a certain amount of swords and dragons. (Although those are also in here, briefly.) I'm pretty sure this is a good pick for non-genre readers too, at least the ones who already have a foot in the magical realism camp. Because the prose is beautiful, and the characters are always in focus, rather than the piles of world-building a lot of people find tedious. (Weirdos.)
So, yeah. Probably ends up on a top 10 of this year's favourite reads. Safely declared even before the end of January. Go on, 2015, you have a lot to prove now!