Book Review: “House of Stairs” by William Sleator

house of stairsAs readers of this blog know, I LOVE so much of the new speculative fiction being published for young adult audiences these days, but sometimes you just gotta go back to the classics!

I recently read House of Stairs by William Sleator which was first published in 1974 and was kinda blown away by it. It contains many of the themes I’m most interested in – identity, difference, learning to stand up for yourself, etc, but it does so in a very sparse way which is extremely effective. The paperback is under 200 pages, but there’s so much packed into such a short space and the end is pretty chilling. Some of today’s authors could learn a few tricks from Sleator.

Somewhat reminiscent of The Maze Runner (which was written some years after this book), House of Stairs contains a mystery as to how the young cast of characters ends up in a mysterious environment, in this case a “house of stairs”, a three dimensional rendering of an Escher painting. It’s clearly an experiment to train the five young characters to learn to do something through behavior modification and, as the narrative develops, the “something” seems more and more chilling. The dynamics between the five different characters are explored in terms of their values, what they’d sacrifice to survive and to figure out what they need to know to survive, and who might not give in. So, in many ways, it’s a character study, but in other ways it’s so much more. It’s an expression of concern about science, behavior modification, the nature of humanity and all kinds of big themes set in a small contained environment.

There’s not a lot in the environment – it’s pretty sparse – so the narrative doesn’t spend a lot of time on world building and focuses instead on the characters. The third person narration shifts from character to character so the reader gets a rounded view of what’s going on. It’s difficult to say more without giving away the plot. And it’s difficult to describe the book without making comparisons to, say, The Maze Runner. I would say that I found House of Stairs more satisfying in the end because the author here gives the reader more answers than Dashner does in his book. Even if you love big stories with battles and the world at stake (eg Hunger Games), perhaps go back to some simpler, but nonetheless chilling, older books that are more or less dystopian, but in a very different way. They may make you think in a different way about the nature of humanity.