Robert Jackson Bennett first pitched his new novel as being about “having a god like a nuclear weapon.” The result is the political thriller City of Stairs, “a fantasy homage to John le Carré, one of my favorite writers,” says Bennett. Le Carré knows that spy work is “not about winning a war; it’s about convincing people to do something that they don’t want to do.”

That particular role in City of Stairs is assigned to Shara Komayd, ostensibly a cultural ambassador from Saypur (in actuality, an elite intelligence agent investigating the murder of a friend and mentor, Dr. Efrem Pangyui). Shara’s inquiry is extremely unpopular with the inhabitants of Bulikov, a fantastic equivalent to many occupied cities of the last 150 years. Bulikov is a bleak, desolate place on the Continent, broken ever since Saypuri forces killed the gods whose power maintained the city’s infrastructure. There are flights of stairs that lead nowhere—an image that inspired the book’s title. Bennett refers to a scene described in Pangyui’s journal: “Kids are playing. They are running up the stairs and down the stairs, and they always look like they’re about to get somewhere but they never do. There’s always this sense of progress that is always out of reach. [It’s] aspiration without attainment. Their bridge to the sky is truncated. They can’t ascend anymore. [It’s] a visual reminder about how things were.”

How would things be different if you knew that gods exist, or at least, once existed? Things would be much worse than they are in our world, Bennett argues. A god’s followers “literally…[would be] the chosen people,” and that certainty would corrupt. “Even if they start out trying to bring the light, they’re going to run wild.”

And too much divine involvement in one’s personal life could really be psychologically unhealthy. For example, “Kolkan is one of the gods who cares what people do. He really cares about you, and has really specific views about how you should live a good life….Everything you do is filthy and wrong, and yes, you do need to be punished….These things theoretically hung the stars but they care about what kind of underwear you wear and how you wash it.” But Kolkan is exactly the kind of god his worshipers desire: “A god that is unhappy with you means that he’s watching you and wants you to do better. Suppose you do better, what’s next? It’s so much better if you’re not doing it right.”

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Although the gods of the Continent once enslaved her people, Shara seems unduly fascinated by their history and their magic. “What I think drives Shara,” Bennett says, “is that she has been told throughout her life an incomplete version of the world. Her government and the Continent aren’City of Stairs-2t really explaining how things work.”

When the gods ruled the Continent, “how things worked” was a very mutable thing; Divine power and faith could actually alter reality. Saypuri history is also a kind of consensual reality; the facts of the past have been redacted to make the Saypuri battles against the Divinities seem more glorious and clear-cut. Bennett notes that something similar “happened in Texas, [Bennett’s home state].” Textbooks were published about “Texan history, American history, capitalism, Christian founding fathers. [There was] nothing about the Black Panthers. No Mohammed in world history.”

Some people just can’t handle unfiltered truth. Bennett says, “There’s a scene in my last book where the character tries to explain why she’s frightened. [She talks about] a schoolmate who wasn’t doing well and got glasses, and she saw things that she never saw before. The main character was like, ‘What if I’m not seeing the world as it really is?’ ”

But Shara proves herself equal to such truths—about the circumstances behind Pangyui’s death, the real nature of the gods, how the Saypuri came to defeat them, and how all of these connect to a dark secret about her prominent family. “There’s a lot about faith and power and politics [in this book],” Bennett says. “There’s a lot that’s happening in it, but on the surface, it’s just a fun murder mystery.”

Amy Goldschlager is an editor, proofreader and book/audiobook reviewer who lives in New York City. She has worked for several major publishers, and has also contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus, ComicMix and AudioFile magazine.