Book Review: City of Stairs

Even though I read a lot for my graduate studies – or at least I try to – I also like to read for fun. And once in a while, I read a book that stays with me for months after I’ve finished it. City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett was one of those books.

It takes place in a world where a large continent – the conveniently called Continent – used to be an empire. At the height of its power, the Continent was backed by six near-omnipotent gods, and it enslaved the nearby island nation of Saypur. Since Saypur had no divine beings of its own, it was powerless against the Continent’s gods – until the day a Saypuri created a weapon to kill divinities. The Continent was plunged into chaos as god after god was killed, and Saypur eventually conquered its former conquerors.

As City of Stairs begins, the Saypuri republic has been in a military occupation of the Continent for decades. It is forbidden for Continentals to worship or even know about their dead divinities, and their sacred texts and artifacts have been locked away. One day, a Saypuri historian – one of the rare persons permitted to study the sacred texts – is found dead in Bulikov, the former capital of the Continent. At this news, our protagonist Shara Thivani comes to town to figure out who killed her former mentor.

What follows is an espionage/intrigue/high-stakes murder mystery plot set in an exceptionally well-built world with a rich mythology. It explores themes such as the long-lasting impact of historical wrongs and what happens when conquerors become the conquered. While I could picture a high school English teacher using this text as an allegory to explore the impact of imperialism and colonialism in our world, it’s also not a blunt and obvious one-to-one translation of historical events in our world, so if you are looking for escapism you can find it in this novel.

I would rate this book 9/10.  I read it on a single rainy weekend because I had such trouble putting it down – much to the detriment of everything else I wanted to get done! I also really appreciated how it stood on its own, even though it is the first novel in a trilogy.

I’m always looking for book recommendations, so if you’ve read City of Stairs and can think of a similar novel – or if this book review reminded you of something else you’ve read – please post a comment!

Header photo © Broadway Books | Penguin Random House

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