City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

December 28, 2014 Reviews 4 ★★★★½

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson BennettCity of Stairs (Divine Cities #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett
Published: October 2nd 2014 by Jo Fletcher Books
Format: Hardcover, 420 pages
Genres: Fantasy
Source: Publisher
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4.5 Stars

You've got to be careful when you're chasing a murderer through Bulikov, for the world is not as it should be in that city. When the gods were destroyed and all worship of them banned by the Polis, reality folded; now stairs lead to nowhere, alleyways have become portals to the past, and criminals disappear into thin air.

The murder of Dr Efrem Pangyui, the Polis diplomat researching the Continent's past, has begun something and now whispers of an uprising flutter out from invisible corners. Only one woman may be willing to pursue the truth - but it is likely to cost her everything.

City of Stairs is an outstanding example of fantasy literature that I have enjoyed immensely. Well-plotted and vividly imagined, Bennett takes readers into a world full of magic, political strife, and (occasionally) murder.

Bulikov is called the City of Stairs because there are staircases all around it that go no where – they just end in mid-air or lead to blank walls, or delve underground and end abruptly. They are relics of a by-gone era that we know nothing about when we begin the book, and I loved how readers get to slowly uncover the magical past of The Continent. The Continent was once all-powerful by the grace of their six Divinities, and used their superiority to subjugate the lands around them, including Saypur. Saypur, bereft of the favour of the Divinities and their Miracles, and hateful of its enslavement by the Continent, rebelled against them and killed the Divinities using the power of science and technology. Now Saypur rules over the Continent, and their strongest edict is that the worship (and even acknowledgement) of the Divinities is now outlawed. But the people of the Continent still remember what it was like to live with the blessings of the Divinities and now that they are forbidden to even learn about their own history, tensions are high between the two races.

This is an incredible world, one that I enjoyed unwrapping slowly throughout the novel. But an amazing world isn’t enough to make a great book – we also need incredible characters to populate it. This is where Shara Divani and Sigurd come in.

Shara comes to Bulikov to investigate the murder of renowned historian Dr Efrem Pangyui, who is a long-time friend of hers. She expects to be confronted with disgruntled Continentals who dislike the Saypuri government, but the more she digs, the more she realises that the situation is more volatile and complex than she’d imagined. There are secrets in Bulikov that never should have seen the light of day. Shara isn’t all she seems either: she’s not a lowly diplomat from Saypur: she’s a spy. It’s Shara’s navigation of this world that makes City of Stairs so interesting. She’s Saypuri, and so subscribes to the beliefs of her people, but she’s also been in exile for a great length of time and is feeling increasingly disconnected from her homeland and her people. Shara also knows more about the history of the Continents, the Divinities, and Saypur’s uprising than most: while the populous is fed a glorified, sanitised version of events, Shara knows the true history.

While Shara held my rapt attention throughout the narrative, the short glimpses I got into her companion Sigrud’s mind were also interesting. I thought his characterisation was rather weak: he’s marked as an outsider from his looks and everyone who meets him is terribly racist towards him, he’s invincible and stoic, serving as Shara’s jack-of-all-trades assistant, and has a mildly distracting story-line about being a displaced and reluctant king. However, the introduction Bennett gives him in the book is nothing short of brilliant, and I liked the way he balanced Shara’s curiosity and restlessness.

Although the book begins as a murder-mystery, City of Stairs is more a story about two cultures and how they coexist and interact. It explores happens when the Conqueror becomes the Conquered, and the place the Divinities (who facilitated the enslavement of the Saypuri nation) have in the new world.

This is a riveting book, one that grabbed me from the very first chapter. I’m a little sad that I’ve already made my list of Best Reads of 2014 – this book certainly deserves a mention! I’m not sure if the author plans more books in this world, but I would gladly read much more about this world if given the chance.

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