by Robert Jackson Bennett
(Broadway Books, $15)
Reviewed by Ealish Waddell
“City of Stairs” takes place in a fascinating alternate Asia, a world where the mundane and the miraculous have struck an uneasy truce.
For a thousand years, Bulikov was the most powerful city in the world, the center of a vast empire shaped and shepherded by its mighty patron gods. Eighty years ago, a catastrophic war destroyed those gods and left the city a broken ruin. The Continent is now ruled by the Saypuri, its former slaves, who in retaliation have sought to outlaw, erase and degrade every possible reminder of the old ways — sacred objects have been locked away, history is highly censored and even the very mention of the gods is forbidden.
Into the simmering tension comes Shara Thivani, a Saypuri junior ambassador and expert spy. A Saypuri historian has been murdered, ostensibly by resentful citizens incensed by foreigners rifling through the divine history that they themselves are not allowed to touch. But it’s soon apparent to Shara that the historian was on the verge of several major discoveries that would shake the foundations of the new world, Saypuri and Continent alike — beginning with the revelation that the gods may not be gone after all.
The city of Bulikov is a relic of a magical past, where reality itself can change between one step and the next, shaking up the stock set pieces of the typical spy thriller. Political intrigue and historical mystery drive the fast-moving plot, which delves into complex issues of colonialism, jingoism and fanaticism without losing narrative momentum.
Its exploration of cultural identity — and what happens when that identity is shattered — echoes thousands of years of our own world history, but also can stand alone as its own masterful creation.