Author: S. A. Chakraborty
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Published: November 2017
A beautiful and lavishly written debut, S. A. Chakraborty’s The City Of Brass will sweep you away on flying carpets to a world filled with magicical djinn, daeva, and ifrit, inhabiting a fresh fantastical setting sure to take your breath away.Nahri, a con artist living on the streets of eighteenth century Cairo has abilities she can’t explain. She can understand any language she hears, she can look at a person and know their ailments, her wounds heal almost instantly, she can even heal others. She uses these talents to survive on her own, having no family or real friends to speak of. All is relatively fine until the day she botches a con while trying to exorcise a djinn from a young girl. Nahri doesn’t believe in djinn or magic. That is until the ifrit who actually possesses the girl comes after her and Nahri accidentally summons Dara, a djinn warrior to aid her.
Fleeing the ifrit and other magical creatures sent to kill them, Dara tells Nahri about a world she thought was merely myth and legend, a world where djinn, flying carpets, and magic are real, a world where she is descended from the Daeva, a once mighty djinn tribe. Together they flee to Daevabad, the legendary City of Brass where Nahri is soon caught up in courtly politics and where the smoldering fire of historical events threatens to reignite into open conflict.
Man…where to start with this one…? The City Of Brass is different from any other fantasy book I’ve read. Now that’s partly my fault for not being as well read as I ought to be. But it’s partly because I’ve read what most of you have read, that being fantasy books with settings reminiscent of medieval or early modern Europe. The City Of Brass however is historical fantasy completely immersed in an Islamic and/or Middle Eastern setting. I’ve read next to nothing in this genre, not even One Thousand And One Nights. I really don’t have anything to compare it to. That’s not a bad thing; quite the opposite it meant everything was fresh and new.
The setting leads into what I enjoyed most about the book, the world building. The book opens in eighteenth century Cairo and the first few chapters navigate that city, it’s locations, people, foods, smells, language, etc. But very quickly the reader is sucked into the myth and legend of the magical world of the djinn and their cousins. From there the story whisks the reader off (on a flying carpet no less) to Persia and then what is now the region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Along the way the wider Islamic world is brought in as background including the regions of North Africa, The Horn of Africa, The Arabian Peninsula, India, and China. Though it is less the real Islamic world and more the world of myth and legend.
But the primary location is the City of Brass itself, Daevabad. This magical city with walls of brass, and magical wards so that mortals can’t find it is filled with six races of daeva and the shafit (humans with daeva ancestry). Split into seven districts, one for each race of daeva and a central market, the city, its people, and its history becomes central to the story.
These locations are infused with the myth and lore of their real life counterparts. Chakraborty delves into the world of the djinn, ifrit, simurgh, zahhak, marid, peri, rukh, shedu, and karkadann, a world with sights and creatures I’m unfamiliar with, but presented in ways that dump the reader right into the thick of things while easing along those who have little or no wider context with which to navigate it. Islamic culture permeates the book as you can imagine. Whether talking about food, or dress, words used for identifying rank and place, there’s a lot of detail which people with a non-Islamic background will be unfamiliar. Thankfully there is a glossary of terms at the back of the book to help us along (which I didn’t discover until a few chapters in, but for which I was thoroughly thankful).
The City Of Brass is told alternatively form the viewpoints of it’s two major protagonists, Nahri the human shafit con artist living in Cairo and Ali the djinn prince of Daevabad. Nahri has grown up on her own, never knowing her parents, and gifted with abilities of healing and language she doesn’t fully understand. Ali has grown up as a prince but sent to train in the Citadel to one day become part of the royal guard and advisor to his older brother who will become king. While Nahri comes from a poor human background and Ali from a rich djinn one, they share a desire to help the less fortunate (Nahri wants to be a doctor and Ali is concerned for the plight of the shafit) as well as a love of learning and libraries. Yet their worlds and experiences are vastly different not to mention the expectations people have of them. As the story progresses Nahri and Ali are drawn closer and closer together until the inevitable conflict that’s coming pulls them into its storm. More on that later.
Nahri is a strong female protagonist. She is skilled in ways that not only help her navigate her world, the streets of Cairo, but that also come in handy in the djinn world. And though she is rescued by Dara from the ifrit early on she isn’t a damsel in distress. As she comes to understand her abilities and apply them to her new surroundings she is able to control her fate without relying on a knight in shining armor.
However at the same time I felt Nahri’s awe of the new world she finds herself in disappears too quickly. As someone who’s only known the human world she does react in wonder at Daevabad, the djinn, and all the other magical and mysterious elements of this new setting, but those new surroundings seem to become normal to her perhaps a little too quick. Maybe I’m being too critical here but I couldn’t shake that feeling. It’s one of the few complaints I have of the story.
The third prominent character is Dara, though we don’t get to see the narrative through his lens. Dara is the daeva (a type of djinn) who Nahri accidentally summons to her aid. Dara is centuries old and a famous warrior in his world who mysteriously disappeared. He is a flawed character (intentionally not because of bad writing) who is loved by the daeva tribe and hated by almost all the others. Dara’s return to Daevabad is fraught with tension and the potential for violence.
Other important characters include Ghassan the Qahtani king of Daevabad, Emir Muntadhir the heir to Daevabad’s throne and Ali’s brother, Kaveh the prominent daeva Grand Wazir, Jamshid the bodyguard for Muntadhir and Kaveh’s son, Hanno the shafit revolutionary, and Nisreen the daeva nurse tasked with training Nahri.
The characters, even the minor ones, are well developed, and have a conflict affecting the outcome of the story. Their past and the past of their people constantly looms in the background and impacts their decisions and actions. I found myself drawn to almost all of them even when I knew I should probably dislike them. Dara is probably the best example of this. He has a haunted and violent past, one that when the full truth comes out could cause those close to him to hate him. Yet for all that there is still an attraction for the reader much like the characters around him are magically attracted whenever they look at him.
One area which some might criticize regarding the characterization in the book is whether they evolve. They don’t to a large extent. I mean yeah they have an arc and where they end the book isn’t where they began, but there isn’t a lot of change in their thoughts, feelings, or motivations. Ali might be an exception to this as he wrestles with his loyalties. But, from a book that is obviously book one in a series I don’t expect a lot of evolution in a character. Indeed I tend to expect that their traits and flaws cause the conflict at the center of the story to be fraught with tension and that only in subsequent books will the eventual evolution of the character be realized. In The City Of Brass this is no exception and there are hints at where each character may go that are set up nicely at the conclusion.
For lovers of romance there’s a bit of that in The City Of Brass but not a lot. There’s a romantic tension between Nahri and Dara that is almost inevitable and adds to the tension and conflict. There’s even a hint of a love triangle when you add Ali to the mix. Nahri and Ali take time to get to know each other; Nahri first sees him as a mark to exploit and Ali is tasked with befriending her by his father as a political move. But as they get to know each other something real begins to develop which is threatened with jeopardy by events as they unfold. I’m not a big romance fan and I was nervous about where this plot device might go but it works and isn’t overbearing.
Chakraborty’s writing style flows well and never gets in the way of the story. The only exception to that might be for those of us unfamiliar with some of the terms and language. Chakraborty shouldn’t be faulted for that however because the story couldn’t be told well without that Islamic and Middle Eastern influence. As I’ve already mentioned there is a helpful glossary included, and most of the terms are repeated often enough or used in context in such a way that you pick up their meaning pretty quickly and can remember it. The flow of her writing and the language she uses make for a pleasurable and for me informative read, one where you are swept up in the narrative and feel a part of it.
The pacing of the story on the other hand is one of the few complaints I have. In the beginning the pacing is swift and serves to draw you in immediately. Nahri and Dara are fleeing toward Daevabad while fighting off ifrit and other creatures out to block their path. But by the middle of the book the pacing slows down. The focus becomes one of palace intrigue and court politics. I found myself asking where the story was going. I liked it, I just couldn’t see how it was going to wrap up. Then the climax comes at you suddenly. I mean yeah you see you’re running out of pages so you know it’s going to end soon, but in terms of the narrative it felt rushed and the plot device that triggers it seemed to come out of nowhere. This is redeemed somewhat as the book closes with a slightly unexpected revelation and a cliff-hanger that hints at good things to come.
That being said, I was immediately drawn into the story from page one, a scene where Nahri is working a con on some local elite. Soon thereafter Nahri is attacked by an ifrit, rescued by Dara, and they begin their journey to Daevabad. Through these chapters the reader is drawn into the wider world of Chakraborty’s narrative and introduced to much of the background context important to the story. At the same time the story shifts to Daevabad and Ali’s story arc where the grand city comes to the fore and the eventual background and setting for the remainder of the narrative is laid out. Through Ali’s arc the royal court and its primary characters are also introduced.
As the narrative progresses there is the shift I’ve already noted to palace intrigue. Nahri and Dara reach Daevabad after many speed bumps along the way to discover a new set of challenges. Nahri must navigate this new world she’s been thrust into as she discovers who her ancestors are and takes on a role as healer in a world where they have disappeared. Dara must come to terms with what has become of the world he once knew and his place in it while struggling with the tensions of his past and present loyalties and beliefs. Ali on the other hand is confronted with whether to trust these newcomers, and is torn between familial loyalties, his desire to help the abused shafit population, and the ever present simmering hostility among the daeva and shafit to his family’s rule.
All of this comes to a head as these plotlines converge. Loyalties are tested, bonds of friendship and family are torn, and full-blown revolution threatens. Everyone must choose what side they are on in the conflict to come.
This isn’t a hack and slash novel so those who prefer that kind of story may be disappointed. But there is action, intense at times both early in the story and at the conclusion. It is more for those looking for an imaginative new fantasy world to explore amid fantastic and magical settings where intrigue and politics come to the fore. Pacing aside I enjoyed this book and look forward to the next in the series.