City of Stairs
City of Stairs (The Divine Cities #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett
Publisher: Broadway Books
Release Date: September 9th, 2014
Shara Thivani, an ambassador and spy for the island nation of Saypur, is sent on a mission by her aunt to the city of Bulikov to investigate a murder. Her former friend and mentor Efram Pangyui has been killed while researching the Divinities that once ruled the Continent and allowed them to conquer Saypur. That is, until the divinities were killed. Now stuck in a subjugated city that has not recovered from losing its miracles and feels nothing but animosity towards her and her kind, Shara needs to rely on old and new allies to sort out a murder mystery that may have larger implications than she could possibly imagine.
In City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett has given the reader an immersive fantasy spy-thriller in an original and fully-realized world. Bulikov, the capital of the Continent, was once the favored city of the six chief Divinities that ruled the Continent. Using these god's power, the Continent was able to conquer and enslave the people of the island of Saypur, until a hero scientist created a weapon that was able to kill the Divines themselves and end their dominance. The militant and far more technologically advanced Saypur is now the subjugator, and have made all discussion on the Divinities, even so much as displaying one of their symbols, a crime. This state of animosity between Bulikov's residents and their ruling class of foreign Saypur military officials creates the backdrop of the story while providing constant tension.
It can be a lot to take in at first and the book starts very slowly, like a roller coaster carefully pulling itself up to the first drop. But once it hits the top, it speeds down at a breakneck pace, taking readers through exciting mysteries and events. Here, a monster battle by the river. There, a warehouse full of ancient objects once blessed by the Divinities. As the reader makes their way through the book, Bennett's tapestry unfolds and we are rewarded with a beautiful and tragic story with engaging, humorous, and flawed characters. Along with her "assistant" Sigrud Harkvaldsson and Colonel Mulaghesh, the unassuming Shara needs to weave through the underbelly of a city that won't let go of its old faith, no matter how many laws her people pass to suppress it.
Bennett's world is made more accessible by not making it too different from our own. The people's names and the culture of Saypur and the Continent are inspired by India and Russia, respectively. It is refreshing to see a series that pulls from those two traditions, especially in a field that is dominated by Western European and American influences. The world here is entering or enjoying its industrial age, with access to advanced sciences, trains and engines, and references to technological advancements not usually seen in fantasy series. The world building is thorough, but it's the characters that make the story and draw us in. Our hero is intelligent and capable, but appears unassuming and easy to underestimate. Granted, having a one-eyed, six-foot barbarian as your bodyguard and companion helps, but Shara often finds herself on her own and with little more than her wits and knowledge to back her up.
City of Stairs explores a lot of heavy topics: fate, family, religion, and war being chief amongst them. There elements of thriller, fantasy, and horror, and you're never quite sure where the story may be leading you or what will happen next. Don't let the unassuming cover or slow start fool you: City of Stairs is a fully realized adventure, a constant surprise, and an utter joy. I highly recommend this book, and will very likely be reviewing the sequel (released earlier this year) at some point soon.