“...history, as you may know, is much like a spiral staircase that gives the illusion of going up, but never quite goes anywhere.”
A fitting image for an imaginary place called Bulikov, the City of Stairs, with literal stairs to nowhere and a complicated history that serves as the setting for this fascinating mash-up of spy mystery and fantasy in a post-gods modern age.
The story is set during a time of bad blood, generations since the Continent flourished under the rule of six Divinities, and Saypur, a slave nation, rose up in rebellion, killed the Divinities, and defeated their once-masters. There is resentment and tension between the Saypuri and the Continentals over the past, their respective rules, and Saypur repressing Continental history and the Divinities' existence. With the death of the Divinities, reality unwrote and rewrote itself, and Bulikov (former seat of the Divinities' rule) and the Continent bear this mish-mash of realities, with mashed together buildings, fragmented places, and stairs that go nowhere. Things reach a tipping point when a Saypuri historian is murdered in Bulikov, and Shara, a diplomat who is also spy and agent for Saypur, investigates and discovers this is more than just a murder mystery with conspiracies, deeper issues, and the possibility that the Divinities and their miracles are still somehow involved.
City of Stairs is a well-written fantasy. It feels unique, incorporating gods but being neither medieval epic fantasy nor urban fantasy. Bennett offers an interesting premise, solid plot and twists, and develops an intriguing world, character back-stories, history, and politics. Bulikov is its own character with the setting adding much to the story. Between chapter introductory quotes, Shara's historical knowledge, and what the characters uncover, readers learn about Bulikov and the war and how it led to the current state of affairs. The writing, dialogue, and conversations are great, with some humorous moments. The characters are a huge draw. Shara is not a typical protagonist—30ish, not-particularly-imposing bespectacled bookworm yet Saypur’s foremost intelligence agent. Sigrud accompanies her as secretary and doubles as her bodyguard and muscle, doing the legwork and physical jobs. They have an odd friendship that really works, with their personalities balancing each other. Additional supporting characters add voice and additional perspectives to the story’s political situation.