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 has become just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself—first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it—stands as a constant, 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 to catch a murderer. 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.
The concept is as epic as fantasy gets. Three generations ago, the Continent’s centuries old stranglehold on world affairs was broken by upstart colony Saypur. Colony became colonizer when they killed the Continent’s gods. Almost overnight the landscape literally changed as the miracles sustained by the slain divinities simply ceased to exist.
We enter into the aftermath of that story, because deicide and intercontinental warfare has been done. Instead we sit in on the trial of a milliner for a violation of the Worldy Regulations, Saypur’s legal mechanism suppressing any reference to the slain divinities, in the Continent’s former capital Bulikov. The trial is, of course, interrupted with the news of a murder.
And we convict almost every case, she thinks, because the law requires us to prosecute them for living their way of life.
I say of course because Robert Jackson Bennett never misses a trope. Some of them are subverted or inverted but there’s never any strain on the story. So a boring trial that’s incidentally and subtly revealing the entire context for the novel has to be interrupted by the most capital of crimes.
Enter the protagonist, one Shara Thivani, a plain short slight bespectacled Saypuri spy investigating the murder on her own initiative. City of Stairs is so may things – political drama, murder mystery, spy thriller, hardboiled noir – but it’s firmly in the epic fantasy genre.
Shara is the gifted orphan on a mission to change the world. Her secretary Sigrud is a silent Beowulf, the hulking northern barbarian with a troubled past and unflinching loyalty. Bulikov is the city of intrigue and old magic. Even the cliché of including passages from historical documents within the secondary world between chapters is on display.
All of this is deftly balanced and perfectly placed. The narrative unfolds along with the investigation. The gnomic interstitials tell their own parallel story and slyly inform the coming chapter. Shara and Sigrud stand out for their platonic relationship. They explore mysteries, uncover conspiracies, and even hunt monsters like Mulder and Scully without a forced romantic subplot.
City of Stairs is an amazing book. Colonial themes are seldom explored in fantasy, and rarely if ever this well. Here we get a look at what might happen when the scrappy underdogs win. How might the downtrodden govern? In a world where the divine was manifest, how might those not chosen respond? What might be the consequences?
But Bennet doesn’t stop there. Because the novel starts with those questions, he’s free to explore alternative solutions to those extant in the setting. The way things are is not the only way. The gods themselves even offer their take on the nature of the divine even as scholars struggle to understand it.
Like Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire, City of Stairs embraces fantasy’s most treasured conventions in order to explore a range of ideas and questions often excluded from the genre. Women and people of color are represented as a broad range of complex characters. Heterosexuality is one option among, if not many, then at least more than one. And violence isn’t always the answer. Or at least not the right one.
This novel had been recommended all over the corners of the series of tubes that I frequent, spiraling closer and more personal until it was only a friend away. I can’t say exactly what made me wait. If you’re in a similar situation, don’t. Get it. Read it. It’s wonderful. You can read an excerpt here.
Recommended for fans of Warehouse 13, James Bond, and The Worldbreaker Saga.