The story is set in a world dominated by the island nation of Saypur, whose technological advancements (on par with the early 20th century) have completely upended the former world order. Saypur used their science to overthrow their former conquerors, the Continentals. The Continent was once gifted with divine magic, until those gods were killed by the Saypuri. Bennett explores the lasting impacts of colonialism and the ways that we define our cultural identities, while still maintaining an action-packed plot.
Shara has spent most of her adult life in exile on the Continent as an employee of the Saypuri Ministry of Foreign Affairs, specifically, as a spy for the Ministry. She is accompanied by Sigrud, her imposing and violent “secretary” with a mysterious past. Shara and Sigrud come to city of Bulikov to solve the murder of Effrem Pangyui, a Saypuri historian whose controversial research earned him no shortage of enemies. Bulikov was once a city of wonders, the cultural and religious center of the Continent, but now wallows in poverty and disease.
At 450 pages, this is not a short book, though the plot moves along so quickly I found it difficult to put down. Another point in City of Stairs’s favor is that it is not part of a larger series, so readers aren’t being asked to commit to three or more books that may or may not have been written yet. By the last pages, most of the plot threads are wrapped up more or less neatly, but between the imaginative setting and the interesting characters (the foul-mouthed female military commander, Mulaghesh, was probably my favorite), I would be perfectly happy if Bennett did write a sequel some day.
If this sounds like your cup of tea, you might also enjoy:
Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone: Gladstone’s debut is a mix of fantasy and steampunk with a fast-paced mystery plot. Tara, a first-year necromancer, is assigned to revive a dead god, but discovers a murder.
The Spirit Lens by Carol Berg: First in a series set around the Collegia Magica, the last college of magic in a world where science has gradually gained supremacy. Portier de Savin-Duplais, a Collegia librarian, is asked to investigate an attempted murder that quickly becomes more complicated.
Cast in Shadow by Michelle Sagara: A gritty work of fantasy, and the first in a series of mysteries. Hawks are the equivalent to police in the City of Elantra, and Kaylin is a new patrol officer out to find a serial murderer of children.