Review based on ARC.
I really enjoy Bennett's imagination and creativity. He creates whole new types of people and creatures and worlds, but still manages to make the whole story accessible and interesting.
In City of Stairs, we join Bulikov (aka City of Stairs) in the "present," after it has been conquered and re-established as an outpost of the now-powerful Saypur. Bulikov, formerly run by and taken care of by the Divinities, is now a relative wasteland, barely limping along. Somehow, historical hero The Kaj managed to kill the Divinities, free the Saypuri (Shalies) from their cruel slavery, and establish a government.
However, the Saypuri government forbids any worship or or even mention of the former Divinities, and so the story begins with the murder of a Saypuri historian who was studying the forbidden Bulikov history and Divinities.
Enter Shara Thivani, cultural ambassador from Saypur, who sets forth to investigate the murder. However, it is very quickly apparent (immediately to the reader) that Ms. Thivani is not actually Ms. Thivani at all, but rather one of the Saypuri ministry's top spies and perhaps much more well connected than initially divulged.
So yeah, it's a sophisticated murder mystery and a fantasy (think: American Gods) rolled into one. But then add the Romeo & Juliet love story, the Dreyling "man" who murders as a matter of course (and also, of course, works for the ministry), a local Saypuri "governor" with a snarky sense of humor, and a whole lot of anger and intrigue, and you've got City of Stairs.
It was complex and involved and thorough and satisfying. It drew me in right from the beginning, and I confess I was up well past "my bedtime" finishing the book. Although the first half takes a little while to really pick up pace, the character, plot, and scenic development is worth the pace. Then, when it starts to move, it MOVES.
The only real critique I have is that I wasn't ever really surprised or ... substantially moved. There is dark humor and dark romance and dark mystery, all my kind of thing and definitely done well, but those moments where you "A-Ha!" or "No!" or "Yes!!".... I don't remember having them. So it wasn't a book where I found myself attached to it, but it is one that I truly enjoyed, am glad I read, and definitely recommend.
Recommend to anyone who enjoys the meatier mysteries/fantasies, something a little smarter. Do not recommend to those who are queasy around fantasy.
FOUR of five stars.