Once in a blue moon I realize that I am reading a new book which is destined to become one of my all time favourite Fantasy novels. `City of Stairs’ by Robert Jackson Bennett is such a book, so I’m making it this week’s recommendation. This novel came out last year and is currently available in paperback and as an ebook. `City of Stairs’ seems to have appealed to both Fantasy and Science Fiction readers. It also incorporates the genres of Spy story and Murder mystery.

Shara is a Saypuri Intelligence officer posing as a low-grade diplomat. She and her secretary/bodyguard, a massive North-man called Sigrud, have come to Bulikov to investigate the murder of Shara’s mentor, the historian Dr Efrem Pangyui. Bulikov is the chief city of the Continent and was once the site of the Seat of the World, a temple from which six Divinities ruled an empire. The country of Saypur, which had no gods to protect it, was conquered by the Continentals and its people treated like slaves. Eventually the Saypuris rose in revolt and their leader, known as the Kaj, discovered a way to kill Divinities and their semi-divine offspring, the Blessed.

When the Divinities died almost everything they had created disappeared, an event known as the Blink. After the Blink came a terrible time of plague and famine. Now the Continent has long been a poor and backward colony of Saypur and all knowledge of its extraordinary past has been suppressed.  Under the `Worldly Regulations’, Continentals are not allowed any form of religion and they must not even mention the names of their former gods.

There is a lot that Shara isn’t mentioning to the people of Bulikov too. She is a direct descendant of the god-murdering Kaj and she’s also the niece of Vinya Komayd, the all-powerful Minister for Foreign Affairs. Shara has only been given a week to look into Dr Pangyui’s brutal murder. Her investigations uncover a plot by fanatical `Restorationists’ to destabilise Bulikov, a plot which may involve Shara’s old flame, wealthy local businessman, Vohannes. After a series of attacks and disappearances there are urgent questions to be answered. What secrets did Dr Panguyi uncover during his research on the true history of Bulikov? How powerful are the ancient artefacts kept in the `Unmentionable Warehouses’  guarded by the Saypuri military, and are all the Divinities of Bulikov really dead?

In my last post I wrote about an Urban Fantasy  (`A Darker Shade of Magic’) which didn’t quite bring its city-settings to life. There are no such complaints this time. Bulikov – the City of Stairs – is an exciting and distinctive place, though not the ideal destination for a relaxing city-break. People who spend all their lives in cities probably dream about rural paradises. I was brought up in beautiful countryside, which may be why I’ve always been fascinated by the great cities of Fantasy. The dangerous Divine City of Bulikov with its vast white walls and mountainous stairs that lead everywhere and nowhere is one of that select group, or even two. There is the  modern city which Shara sees when she first arrives, with its dark alleyways and bland, featureless buildings, and the dazzling pre-Blink city which she gets occasional glimpses of. Modern Bulikov convinces as a colonial city with a complex political life where the ordinary citizens struggle to earn a living amongst the ruins of their once great civilization. Ancient Bulikov was a place where different realities met and miracles were a daily occurrence, a place which some factions long to see restored to its former glory.  That glory though came at a high price for citizens unwilling or unable to conform with the sacred laws of the ruling Divinities.

Bennett is a very skilful story-teller who only gradually reveals the full back stories of his leading characters and of the relations between the Continentals and the Saypuris. He cunningly begins with the military Governor of Bulikov, Colonel Mulaghesh,  presiding over an absurd court case in which a hat maker is accused of advertising his hats with a sign which is deemed to be too similar to an ancient symbol of one of the banned Divinities. The defendant is outraged because, `The Wordly Regulations deny us our history’, though Saypuri scholars such as Dr Pangyui are allowed to study the records forbidden to locals. The reader shares his outrage. `City of Stairs’ explores the same theme, of whether war crimes should be forgotten for the sake of peace, as Ishiguro’s recent novel `The Buried Giant’ (see my April 30th post) but in my view does it even better. As the story develops it becomes clear that while the Continentals know that parts of their history, and therefore their cultural identity, are denied to them, most Saypuris are unaware of how much their own history has been distorted by their ruling elite. By the end of the book plenty of secrets are still being kept but you can understand why.

Having got our sympathy for a people whose Nationalism has been neutered by depriving them of the religion which underlay so much of their culture, Bennett proceeds to illustrate the darker aspects of that religion, embodied by the puritanical Kolkashtani sect whose followers must live by a bizarre and cruel set of rules. I say religion but it isn’t just one. Bennett describes a wide range of religious experience to go with his six primary Divinities, who include Sky-Dancer Trickster God, Jukov; harsh, judgemental Kolkan; and the gentle Goddess Olvos who disappeared before the Blink. Bennett has come up with a wonderful explanation for why some cultures have conflicting creation myths and his Divinities come with impressive sets of miracle-working objects and sacred creatures. When some of the latter are loosed to wreak havoc on Bulikov, the tone of `City of Stairs’  tips towards Horror but it remains a story with many layers of meaning. This novel makes you ask whether banning religion is ever justified and it examines, in a most original way, the old conundrum of whether God created man in his own image or vice versa.

Even if you are not much interested in questions like these, `City of Stairs’ is an absorbing mystery story about intriguing characters. Quite often I decide not to recommend an otherwise enjoyable  novel because the female characters are only there as love or lust-objects for the male characters. Bennett however writes strong and complex women. There is the honest soldier, Colonel Mulaghesh, the wily politician Vinya, and best of all super-smart Shara. Small, plain Shara is frequently underestimated by her opponents but she’s able to deal with almost anything. At first she seemed rather unlikable but, as I learned more about the idealism of Shara’s youth and her life as an exile from her home country, I began to respect and admire her. If it’s inspiring heroes you want, there is Vohannes, the debonair playboy with a tortured past, and there is strong, silent Sigrud who takes part in what is probably the best man versus monster fight since Beowulf met Grendel’s mother (see my post of June 2014). By the end of the book I’d become so fond of the leading characters that I found myself continuing their stories in my own imagination. There is to be a sequel though, called `City of Blades’,  and Bennett’s Continent is undoubtedly a Fantasy world rich enough to sustain a whole series of novels. If you only accept one of my recommendations this year, let it be `City of Stairs’.