City of Stairs (The Divine Cities #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett
Published: 09.09.2014 by Broadway Books
Rating: 5/5 stars
I received this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Synopsis: Years ago, the city of Bulikov wielded the powers of the Gods to conquer the world. But after its divine protectors were mysteriously killed, the conqueror has become the conquered; the city’s proud history has been erased and censored, progress has left it behind, and it is just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power. Into this musty, backward city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the quiet woman is just another lowly diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, Shara is one of her country’s most accomplished spymasters — dispatched to investigate the brutal murder of a seemingly harmless historian. As Shara pursues the mystery through the ever-shifting physical and political geography of the city, she begins to suspect that the beings who once protected Bulikov may not be as dead as they seem — and that her own abilities might be touched by the divine as well.
When I first tried to pick this up, I felt overwhelmed after 1 page. The different fantasy-names can seem very intimidating, especially because fantasy seems to have a knack for creating weird names. However, I had seen such amazing reviews on this book. People raving about it. So I wanted to give it an honest try. When I picked this back up this week, I was hooked. Somehow, it didn’t seem so intimidating anymore! I’m so glad I did. I think this book may get its own spot on my favorites list.
In this fantasy world, several nations exist. The most prominent ones in this novel are Saypur and the Continent. Although other nations exist, they are not mentioned often – for example, one of the characters is a Dreyling yet this book talks mostly about Saypur and the Continent. There is a long and rich history behind these nations, which is one of the reasons I love this book so much.
Saypur and the Continent have been at war for decades -even centuries. Decades ago, Saypur was enslaved to the Continent. The Continent’s people were referred to as the Blessed, because they had Divinities on their side. These Divine entities performed miracles, and made it so the Continent was the most powerful country. One day, they wanted to expand, and thus enslaved the people of Saypur who did not have any Gods. Until the Kaj of Saypur created a weapon powerful enough to kill the Gods. That day, the tables turned. The people of the Continent relied so much on their Gods, that they didn’t have the power to resist Saypur once they were gone. Now, Saypur rules over the Continent, and any mention of the Gods is forbidden by law.
The history is rich in this novel. It delves deep into both Saypur’s past, and the Continent’s. So the world-building is very intense. That can make it feel a bit slower, as at times it’s less driven by the plot. The world-building and rich history make this world seem that much more real. You truly get a feeling for the culture, the religion, the history and so on. Much of our personalities and values are influenced by where we come from. You could easily see that in these characters. People from the Continent are much more conservative, and stick to older values, while people from Saypur are all about freedom (for their people at least).
The Gods didn’t just influence the religion, but every single aspect of this country (Continent). They created buildings and entire cities, kept the climate warm and diseases away. When they were assassinated, many of their miracles disappeared. Thus entire buildings collapsed or disappeared. It left the city, and the entire country, in ruins.
This book is mostly set in Bulikov, a city in the Continent. It’s truly the heart of the country though, and inhabits many people. It’s only a shadow of its prior grandeur though. As it was always the capital, it was a city so heavily influenced by its Gods. And when their miracles and work disappeared, so did a lot of the city.
I could talk about the world-building of this story forever. To me, it’s one of the most important aspects of a fantasy novel. If the world is written well, and thoroughly, it’s that much easier to immerse yourself in it. I do want to leave parts of it for you to discover on your own though, so I’ll stop here. Let’s just say that this author did an incredible job creating this world.
This is going to be the shortest aspect of the review, I think. The beginning of this book encompasses a lot of world-building, which gives a tad less space for the plot. It has a slower start to it. The plot revolves around the murder of a historian, and Shara’s investigation. That’s all I want to say, as Shara’s journey is one of many twists and turns.
I do feel like this book picked up the pace after a while. I was following Shara’s investigation with interest, always wondering who was behind the murder. I pretty much suspected everyone. Yet still didn’t guess it correctly. (I know that sounds impossible, but it really isn’t.)
There are many characters who play a role in this story, some more important than others. Yet I feel like it’s a bit too telling if I talk about them all? So I’ll just talk about Shara. She’s presented as a cultural ambassador at first, yet we know as a reader that she’s in fact a high-ranking intelligence officer. She’s a very competent and driven woman. Her career is incredibly important to her, partly because she so badly wants to go home. I loved Shara as a main character. She’s such a smart lady, and she kicks ass. It’s also fun to read about women as high ranking officers, and even ministers. Just like the world, Shara lhas a rich family history. Often, she has to watch her step, because of her family -or even just her last name. She seems like a pretty open person. And with that, I mean that she’s open to ideas from other cultures. She hates dealing with political situations and meetings, which girl, I can understand.
I also love how she has strong friendships. The professor, Sigrud, and so on. If she sees you as her friend, she will do whatever she can to help which is a quality I greatly admire. I do feel like I still know very little about the professor, but I guess that’s understandable as this story starts with his murder. I’m also incredibly intrigued by Sigrud, and I hope I’ll get to read more about him in the next books -which I’m definitely going to pick up.
Overall, I highly recommend this book. I think it’s going to get a spot on my favorites list! If you love fantasy with strong world-building, this is the book for you. It may seem a little slow in the beginning, but I promise you it’s worth every second of your time.