Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)
William Sleator’s House of Stairs is a fascinating psychological thriller about five orphans who are kidnapped, brought to an enormous facility (housed entirely of stairs and nothing but stairs) and left to their own devices. They are controlled by a mysterious box which provides food – but at a cost. Slowly, the box begins to subtly demand what it wants, and the teenagers must react and adapt accordingly, dancing a twisted dance of survival; if they refuse to participate or if they do not infer correctly what the box wants from them, they will go without food – and it is never certain when the next chance might come. As three of the teenagers descend further and further into darkness and insanity, two others take a stand, willing to risk their lives to do what is right, rather than submit to the devious whims of whatever mad scientist controls the box. House of Stairs is a psychological page-turner, similar to the likes of Cormier’s I Am the Cheese. It is a rebuke of the over-reaches of science and a warning against the loss of humanity for the advancement of research.
3 – Characters well developed.
Each of the characters in this book is interesting in his or her own way, including the scientist who makes a rather brief appearance at the end. While I found certain characters a bit flat and overly simplified (such as the “fat girl,” Blossom, being always hungry and eager to steal food), others were genuinely interesting. The main character, Peter, is one of the interesting ones. He has a fascinating back-story and intriguing personality; unfortunately, because the book is so short – the more interesting characters do not get nearly enough time or development. Learning more about Peter and his obsession with a boy named Jasper, or spending more time with the scientist and finding out what happens to him after his “results” presentation, could have gone a long way to developing this story as a work of master dystopia and science-fiction, rather than just a pretty good, interesting YA book. What is an achievement, though, is the clear distinction between the characters – Abigail, the shy, pretty girl who wants to be good; Oliver, the dominant, popular kid who is needled with self-confidence issues; Blossom, the rich girl who was orphaned recently and knows of a world different from any of the others; Lola, the tough girl, who smokes, has sex (probably) and breaks pretty much any other rule she can; and Peter, the follower who just needs someone to believe in him and who turns out to be the one possible hero. Thrown together, the five of them create an environment which is disturbingly fun to watch – it’s just too bad the story was so short.
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.
Sleator is certainly a good writer. His style and narrative voice, plus a great use of dialogue and an interesting plot all work together to create an interesting, worthy read – which makes me wonder why I had never heard of the book or author before. The writing level is middle grade or young adult, but the themes are definitely YA+ so some parents may want to preview the book beforehand for violence, psychological abuse, and “mild” torture. Despite the twisted elements, the skimmed histories, and the too-rapid, open-ended conclusion (or, perhaps because of these things), the book is still an enjoyable, quick read. Much of this is thanks to the style and prose – this is an easy story to sink into, because the writing seems effortless, and it echoes what is happening in the story at any particular time.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
Aside from the general theme and moral of the story, what is also great about this book is that it presents elements which, in other books, might seem like a big deal (such as one of the characters being gay) but, in this book, just “happens to be.” I also appreciated the study of human experimentation and the nature of violence and decline into madness.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Dystopia; Psychological Experimentation; Nature of Violence; Survival of the Fittest; Government Control.