Like any detective novel, City of Stairs starts off with a doubled narrative. The first is the story of the investigation itself; the second is the story that is uncovered–a story of secret jealousies, agendas, and betrayals that led to the murder in question. The first narrative is the uncovering of the second.
But while City of Stairs starts off like any detective novel, the second narrative quickly transitions away from the murder toward the history of the ruined city that comprises the setting of the story.
This city was once the capital of a world-spanning empire, backed by the might of mysterious and powerful Divinities. Then, one of their conquered slave states developed a weapon against the gods and, upon their deaths, the empire was not just overthrown but also physically ruined.
Who murdered the beloved old professor looking into the forbidden history of those Divinities? What are the former conquerors plotting to overthrow their new masters? Why did the gods help one people but not the others?
Into this mess comes a bookish, brilliant, bespectacled woman, Shara, who is the preeminent spy in her young empire, along with her secretary, a huge, ass-kicking nihilist named Sigurd.
Sigurd will be a fan favorite, I predict; he nicely fulfills Jim-Butcher-like levels of Exaggeration (reference: http://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/1698.html ) but it’s Shara who carries things. Her voice–analytical, disillusioned, detached emotionally except when she’s not–makes the book work.
However, this is a book about stories, and they’re stories that the characters tell each other. While there are some action scenes, much of the text is taken up with puzzling over old myths and secret history, so it’s talky. In a good way, but still.
Anyway, this is the first of Robert Jackson Bennett’s books I’ve read, and it’s terrific. You should read it, too.