City of Stairs (The Divine Cities #1)
by Robert Jackson Bennett.
Disclaimer: City of Stairs does not actually feature stairs as much as you might think. What it does feature is a no-nonsense & brilliant spy, her hulking Nordic ‘secretary’, a handful of maybe-or-maybe-not-dead gods, a murder mystery, pocket alternate realities, magic-as-religious-act, and a whole host of interesting characters and political-bureaucratic tangles. In sum: it’s a full, fun read.
The Continent, blessed by their 6 gods, used to be the most powerful empire in the world. Until a hero from Saypur (one of their colonies) managed to kill off the gods, thereby also erasing all of the magic and structures of society that the gods had gifted their favored land. Now Saypur rules its former conquerer. The city of Belikov, once the central hub of the Continent and home to the gods, has fallen far, but is still home to plenty of intrigue. 70 years may have passed, but its citizens haven’t forgotten their golden age, no matter how their new rulers try to censor history and any mention of divine beings. The city hasn’t forgotten either; there are areas where reality seems to shimmer, or change. Add together the new overlords, one native faction wanting to move forward, and one faction wanting to return to the past, and you have a nice mix of flammable politics. When Saypur makes the questionable decision to send a historian to study Continental history and artifacts- that the Continentals themselves are forbidden from viewing or speaking about- it throws a match on the whole situation.
Enter Shara Komayd, a high-ranking intelligence officer from Saypur, sent to investigate the historian’s murder. She is undercover as a minor bureaucratic functionary with only her giant bodyguard/secretary Sigrud as back-up. What starts as a simple murder investigation soon turns up more questions than answers. Why exactly was the historian murdered- simple offense or some deeper reason? Why does the Saypuri Foreign Minister not want Shara in Belikov? Why do some areas of the city seem to change, or allow people to disappear? How is Shara’s old flame from college mixed up in this? Why do some of the god’s miracles still work? What really happened all those years ago when the gods were killed? What if they aren’t actually dead?
I enjoyed this book a great deal. It was a bit slow to get started, but once Shara arrived on the scene things picked up and I was hooked. I loved her as a main character. She is smart and no-nonsense and capable, but also human underneath with her quirks and things from her past she’d rather not relive. Sigrud, her companion, is one of the best sidekick characters I’ve come across in a long while. He’s just so… taciturn. And efficient, and seemingly blasé about necessary violence. But he’s got some depth to him, too. The writing is very atmospheric, and the world has a kind of proto-Russian/Eastern European feel. And overall the mystery was very well done, though at the end I did feel it wrapped up too quickly (and so was glad to hear there will be a sequel).
If you like mysteries with an urban fantasy setting, give this a try.