I may be almost a decade behind on this one but better late than never, right? The Divine Cities Trilogy by Robert Jackson Bennett keeps getting recommended although the first book came out in 2014. In our fast internet world, this is quite remarkable. Such an enduring low-buzz love for a series can’t be explained with a good marketing campaign or hype, it must be because the books actually touched a nerve. And now that I’ve finally read the first of them, I can understand why they are still talked about.
CITY OF STAIRS
by Robert Jackson Bennett
Published: Broadway Books, 2014
eBook: 464 pages
Series: The Divine Cities #1
My rating: 8/10
Opening line: “I believe the question, then,” says Vasily Yaroslav, “is one of intent.”
An atmospheric and intrigue-filled novel of dead gods, buried histories, and a mysterious, protean city–from one of America’s most acclaimed young fantasy writers.
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 city of Bulikov is one hell of a place to explore. It took me a few chapters to get really intrigued and to find my way into what this story was trying to be, but once the ground rules were established, this book is a thrill ride filled with fun, great complex relationships, kick-ass characters, and awesome twists. The most baffling aspect of Bulikov and the Continent on which it stands is that there used to be gods – six of them, in fact – who had made all sorts of miraculous things happen, set up rules for their followers to live by, and kept the Continent going economically. Except then the Kaj came and straight up killed the gods, thus turning the suppressed island of Saypur into the new power wielders. The Continent lost all its gods, its magic (and with that, parts of buildings or even entire cities), and its right to even mention the existence of Divinities. Things aren’t pretty in Bulikov when protagonist Shara Thivani arrives in order to solve a murder case.
What starts out as a more or less straight forward murder mystery, with questioning and investigations and all that jazz, soon turns into something much bigger (and may I say cooler!) than that. To be completely honest, at first I wasn’t all that interested in solving the murder case but there was so much other stuff to explore and learn about that I also wasn’t ever bored. I wanted to know more about the gods and the city of Bulikov, about how Shara had met her bodyguard/assistant/friend Sigrud (Sigrud is fantastic!) and why the hell one would forbid a nation to even acknowledge its past.
There are a lot of questions of culture and oppression and about the role of religion for both a country and the individual who follows it.
The one thing that sealed the deal for me, however, was when we are introduced to a character named Vohannes Votrov, a childhood friend of Shara’s. I can’t fully explain to you why I’m such a sucker for those two except maybe that I like nerds and people who are clever and these two outsmarted everyone else during their school days and continued to be highly intelligent people navigating the intricate world of politics. There’s a lot more to them individually as well as them as a pair but I don’t want to spoil things for those of you who have yet to read this book. Let’s just say this was the part that got me hooked on the characters even more than the world building.
As the plot progresses and Shara figures out more and more secrets – some to do directly with the murder of historian Pangyui, some tangentially related but no less shocking – Bennett ramps up the action. The final third of this book was pretty much non-stop crowning moments of awesome, alternating between the characters. Sigrud steals the show on several occasions and I can’t put into words how much that one-eyed giant of a man grew on me. Shara may be small and unassuming but, damn, does she have an A+ brain that gets people out of tricky situations more than once. Even governor Mulaghesh, who doesn’t feature quite as prominently, shows how brilliant she is when the time calls for it. This is one of those books where you don’t even notice how much you care about the characters until later when they are in serious danger. I even caught myself cheering out loud when Sigrud did something particularly cool.
At the end, we get a few more twists and a surprisingly satisfying conclusion. If – for some unfathomable reason – you’d wish to stop reading the series after this book, you absolutely could. The ending is well-rounded, you could leave this world where it is and not feel like you’re missing out on something important. But why the hell would you not want to return to this magical, mysterious place? I, for one, can’t wait to see how the world advances and what Robert Jackson Bennett has in store for Shara and the others.
MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!