Bulikov, the Divine City, is a shadow of its former self. Once it was the seat of a mighty empire protected by gods and miracles. Now its gods are dead, the city is fractured beyond repair, and the whole continent is ruled by the descendants of the Saypuri people it enslaved for centuries. When a controversial scholar is found dead in his office, spy Shara Komayd is sent to investigate but soon finds herself ever more tangled in a tinderbox of politics, history, and religion that only needs the tiniest of sparks to erupt into a devastating war.
City of Stairs is a full-blooded political fantasy novel and the first book in the Divine Cities trilogy. This is the kind of fantasy I love to read. The world-building is excellent; the clash of cultures and the complex geopolitical situation added a whole other dimension to the story and raised the stakes of each decision. I particularly liked the setting which had a feel of early Soviet-era Russia with people living in the ruins of splendour while their history was erased and their gods forbidden. The plot was well paced and twisty with enough exposition to understand the context of what was happening and enough action to keep me reading the next chapter. My favourite aspect, as always, were the characters. I love a clever protagonist with a mind like a corkscrew who is more likely to think their way out of trouble, and Shara Komayd is exactly the kind of protagonist I root for. She and the other main characters are complicated, well written, and just fun to read about. If I had any niggle with this book, it's that Robert Jackson Bennett kept a light touch with the backstory but I suspect these stories may reveal themselves more in the later books.
At it's heart, City of Stairs is about identity in the face of an uncertain future. It asks whether society should try to go back to what it once was, or shake off the old and step into a brave new world. It's a fantastic start to the Divine Cities trilogy with original world-building, tangled geopolitics, lots of action, and an awesome female protagonist.
Recommended For: People who like slightly gritty political fantasy with a sense of humour.
Read On: The next in the trilogy is City of Blades. For something a little darker and violent but with the same sense of humour, try The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie.