City of Stairs
by Robert Jackson Bennett
The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions — until its divine protectors were killed. Now, Bulikov’s history has been censored and erased, its citizens subjugated. But the surreal landscape of the city itself, forever altered by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it, stands as a haunting reminder of its former supremacy.
Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country’s most accomplished spies, dispatched — along with her terrifying “secretary”, Sigrud — to solve a murder.
But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem, and that Bulikov’s cruel reign may not yet be over.
A tale of vast conspiracies, dead gods, and buried histories, City of Stairs is at once a gripping spy novel and a stunningly original work of fantasy.
I’ve wanted to read City of Stairs ever since my friend Natalie @ A Sea Change read, loved and raved about it, then earlier this year I read and enjoyed the first in Robert Jackson Bennett’s latest series, Foundryside. When the release date of Shorefall was pushed back from 2019 to 2020, I figured it was about time I gave his first trilogy a try.
I can’t believe I waited so long to read this novel, but ultimately I’m glad I read this book when I did because I loved it. It’s a difficult one to review, but just know that this is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read.
Rather than your typical medieval European-inspired high fantasy setting, Bennett is a pro at creating urban high fantasy backdrops. In this novel we have Bulikov, the major city on the Continent, which feels Russian-inspired, and Saypur, which feels very Indian-inspired. The Continent was once ruled over by a pantheon of gods, and it was with their power that the Continent enslaved Saypur. City of Stairs takes places around half a century after Saypur was able to slay the gods, and now it’s the Continent that’s under Saypur’s thumb.
The people of the Continent are forbidden from worshipping their fallen gods in any way, even simply using an old picture of them as the logo for their business, and they’re forbidden from studying their own history and sacred texts. When a historian from Saypur who has been studying the Continent’s history is murdered, Saypuri spy Shara is sent to investigate.
Shara is brilliant. She excels at what she does, but her true passion lies with history and myth making her a woman after my own heart. She’s a scholar who’s fallen into espionage and politics, and a person who feels a lot of guilt for being fascinated by the history of the country that enslaved her ancestors. Much like Sancia in Foundryside, Shara easily could have been a trope – there’s hardly a lack of detectives with tragic or mysterious pasts in fiction – but Bennett doesn’t do her that disservice. She feels real, and I wish I could meet her for a drink.
The other characters we meet are great, too. There’s Shara’s ‘secretary’, Sigrud, who so easily could have been nothing more than a side character there for comic relief, but he’s another compelling character and I love his and Shara’s friendship. I’d like more and more male/female friendships in fantasy, please.
We also meet Vohannes, Shara’s ex-lover, a Bulikov native who’s quite possibly the most complex character in this novel, and the woman of my heart, General Turyin Mulaghesh. Mulaghesh is a grumpy older woman who smokes a lot, swears even more, and ultimately has a heart of gold despite being a woman you’d never want to cross. I adore her.
With its setting and the technology available in this world, City of Stairs has this delicious 1940s noir feeling to it. It’s so different to any other fantasy novel I’ve read and so well-written, and not the kind of story I was expecting to love as much as I did because, when I read fantasy, I love to be swept away to somewhere more comforting than the world I know. City of Stairs has a lot of things in it that are familiar; it’s very political (it’s a high fantasy novel with governments rather than a monarchy, which is so refreshing), the religious history is incredibly believable, and the idea of the persecuted becoming the persecutors is something we can see throughout the history of the world.
In so many fantasy novels we know, deep down, that good will out even if the story is particularly dark. In City of Stairs we’re never certain that the characters we meet will be okay because the stakes are so high and so realistic. Its exploration of history, politics, culture and colonialism is perfection, and I know this novel is one I’ll be thinking about for a long, long time.