(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)
Review Soundtrack: I suggest reading this review while listening to Losing My Religion, by R.E.M. (Spotify, YouTube).
Before City of Stairs, my only previous experience with the work of Robert Jackson Bennett had been not very satisfactory. I tried to read American Elsewhere, but when I was half my way through it I found myself neither caring for the characters, whose motivations I didn't buy at all, nor interested in the plot and I decided to stop reading it (life is short and all that). However, at LonCon 3 this summer I had the chance of attending a couple of panels in which Bennett participated and I was very intrigued by what he told about his new novel, so I decided to give it a try.
City of Stairs is a stand-alone urban fantasy novel with some elements of mythology, crime fiction and even a touch of steampunk. I think that the easiest way of describing it is to imagine a bastard son of two China Miéville's novels: The City & The City and Kraken. However, although there is nothing especially wrong with the book, it is not as good as any of those.
City of Stairs is, in fact, a perfectly OK novel. It is fun to read and has some really excellent moments, particularly those related to the ancient gods and their miraculous artifacts. It also has a lot of humor, something that I wasn't expecting and was a very nice surprise. And, of course, it has some really great characters, especially Sigrud who steals the scene once and again.
The strongest point of the novel is, however, the way it approaches topics such as colonialism, censorship, revenge and the abuse of political power. History is written by the victors, as the saying goes, and in this case it is literally true. In the first chapter, for example, Bennett manages to masterfully depict a situation of oppression and injustice, as well as setting the background for most of the novel, while being really ironic and even humorous. And the strange amalgamation of the city of Bulikov is a perfect metaphor for the social reality of the Continent and its inhabitants.
Unfortunately, City of Stairs also has some problems that prevented me from loving it. For instance, it relies very heavily on the dialog to reveal key facts and to provide a big part of the worldbuilding. Even the last chapter is, mostly, a long talk between two characters in which all that remained to be explained is explained in detail (a not very elegant solution, if you ask me). Also, many of the ideas about religion and mythology (I won't be more specific in order to avoid spoilers) stroke me as not very original and some of the final twists and revelations were quite sloppy, in my opinion.
All in all, City of Stairs is quite a good novel but by no means the masterpiece that many reviews made me believe I'll find. If you usually like urban fantasy or if you want to compare how it stands against the Miéville's novels I mentioned above, give it a try. Otherwise, you can skip it. You won't miss too much.