The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
Nahri, a young woman living alone in 18th century Cairo, gets by doing minor cons, fake healing rituals and a little theft. She knows nothing about her parents or heritage but, in addition to being able to diagnose disease in others with a glance and occasionally truly heal them, her own body automatically heals of injuries almost instantly and she has the magical ability to understand ― and speak ― any language.
Nahri’s life gets upended when she accidentally summons Darayavahoush, a fiery, handsome djinn warrior, to her side while performing a sham healing ceremony. After he gets over his murderous rage at being involuntarily summoned, Dara saves Nahri from murderous ifrit and ghouls who have become aware of Nahri and her abilities. Dara quickly enchants a magic carpet and, dragging along the reluctant Nahri, he flees with her toward Daevabad, the legendary city of brass inhabited by magical djinn (or, more properly, daeva). But there are warring political factions in Daevabad among the six different djinn tribes, and appalling mistreatment of the mixed-blood, partly human underclass of shafits. Nahri and Dara each have trouble that may await them there in Daevabad, for different reasons.
The chapters of The City of Brass (2017), S.A. Chakraborty’s debut fantasy novel based on Middle Eastern mythology, alternate between two characters’ points of view: Nahri, the feisty young con artist with a mysterious magical heritage, and Prince Alizayd al Qahtani, the second son of the ruler of Daevabad. Ali is a rather tightly wound but honorable young warrior with a mixed heritage himself, has sympathy for those who are mistreated. But in trying to secretly (and illegally) fund needed educational and medical services for the oppressed shafits, he may be stirring up even more trouble.
Chakraborty, who spent years studying Middle Eastern history and developing the magical world in which this story is set, has created a vibrant and exotic setting in The City of Brass. (There’s a helpful glossary at the end of the book that defines some of the Middle Eastern terminology and magical beings). Some of the setting details are memorable, like the palace in Daevabad that mourns its missing founding family, the Nahids. The gardens are an untamed wilderness, stairs go missing, water in fountains frequently turns to blood. When Nahri, a lost member of the Nahid family, arrives in the city, the palace magically begins to spiff itself up. In this exotic setting, Chakraborty examines some timeless human issues, like prejudice, torn loyalties, and the effect of violence on a person’s heart.
The City of Brass has a fast-paced beginning that sucks the reader right in, as Nahri and Dara flee through the desert toward Daevabad, pursued by deadly enemies, and develop a relationship based on equal parts irritation and attraction. Once they reach Daevabad, the great city of brass, the plot slows down and gets a little muddled. There are too many competing factions and conflicts: between pureblood djinn and shafits, between the different djinn tribes and other magical elementals, and between those who support the currently ruling Qahtani family and those who are intent on bringing back Nahid rule, using Nahri.
Additionally, there are conflicts within the hearts of each of the main characters. Dara isn’t really certain he wants to take Nahri to Daevabad, where capture or death may be his fate, and where his violent past, which still haunts him, may catch up to him. Nahri isn’t at all convinced she wants to go there either; she rather liked her life as it was, and she doesn’t intend to be anyone’s pawn. And Prince Ali is caught between warring factions and loyalties, trying to balance both.
“You won’t be able to continue like this, Alizayd,” he warned. “To keep walking a path between loyalty to your family and loyalty to what you know is right. … Because on the day of your judgment, Alizayd … when you’re asked why you didn’t stand up for what you knew was just …” He paused, his next words finding Ali’s heart like an arrow. “Loyalty to your family won’t excuse you.”
It’s a conflict-driven plot, with both physical violence and subtler conspiring and conniving. While some of the more tangential factions and contentions are hazy in their nature and motivations, overall The City of Brass is a compelling read. Chakraborty won back my enthusiasm with a rousing game-changer of an ending. I didn’t even care that it was a cliffhanger! Now I’m anxiously awaiting the next book in THE DAEVABAD TRILOGY, The Kingdom of Copper, expected to be published in 2018.
The City of Brass, while it isn’t being marketed as a young adult fantasy, has crossover qualities. It has two younger main characters and, despite the web of conflicts, it’s written in a fairly straightforward style. It’s likely to appeal to older teenagers as well as many adults.
In a richly described 18th century Cairo, Nahri is faking an exorcism. An impoverished street urchin, Nahri has always been able to sense people’s illnesses, and uses this mysterious skill to swindle the gullible and desperate. But when she accidentally summons an ancient Djinni called Dara, things go a little awry…
Dara whisks her away (on a magic carpet, no less) to Daevabad, a magical eastern city protected by brass walls. It is here that Nahri finds out she is descended from magical blood — which explains the mysterious powers she’s had her whole life. She quickly becomes immersed in the tumultuous political and magical goings on in a city full of racial and religious tensions.
Dara becomes an intriguing conundrum for Nahri to puzzle over — and it does, of course, help that he’s devastatingly handsome. Alongside the intrigues of the royal family, S.A. Chakraborty weaves a compelling and fast-paced tale that is sure to pull readers into her richly evoked world.
It would’ve been interesting to see Nahri spend a little more time in the alleys of Cairo. These opening scenes were intriguing, especially seeing Nahri fleece her unwitting customers. Yet almost immediately she finds herself being chased by ghouls in an abandoned graveyard, which felt a little incongruous after the stalls and backstreets of Egypt’s capital.
City of Brass is well written and well-paced. Nahri is a compelling heroine, though it does sometimes feel as though we’ve heard her voice before: the strong, sassy underdog will feel familiar. But the scope of the novel, its cast, and the twisting plot ensures for a strong debut.
If I were being honest, I’d have to admit that I liked S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass much more than I’d expected to. When it first came out, the brief description had me thinking it felt pretty familiar and the few reviews I’d read, while generally positive, weren’t effusive enough to convince me to pick it up. But when the publisher sent me its sequel, The Kingdom of Copper, fortuitously just as I was heading into my semester break, I decided to give it a shot. And I was glad I did, as not only did I thoroughly enjoy The City of Brass, its sequel, which I began immediately upon finishing book one, was as good if not better, making both an easy recommendation.
In late 18th Century Cairo, Nahri is a young street con artist/thief who has survived, so far, based on her wits and her mysterious abilities to heal and understand all languages. Jaded and cynical even at such a young age, she scoffs at the stories of monsters, demons, and spirits even as she uses them in her scams. But when she accidentally calls up an actual djinn named Dara (for short), she finds herself way over her head and on the run from ifrits and marids on the way to possible safety in the fabled city of brass — Daevabad, center of the Djinn realm.
That realm, though, has been riven by war and tension for centuries, ever since the human prophet Suleiman used a magical seal to limit the djinns’ powers and split them into six warring tribes. Dara, in fact, fears entering Daevabad thanks to his role in the last war hundreds of years ago. The city itself, meanwhile, is being torn apart by multiple factions. One particular flashpoint is the status (or lack thereof) of shafits — the product of human-djinn matings. Trying to prevent the city from blowing up is its dictatorial ruler Ghassan, who rules over his sons with the same iron fist. The eldest and crown prince, Muntadhir, has turned to drink and sex as compensation, while his younger brother Ali is considered near to a religious zealot. Worse, his advocacy of the Shafits is considered not just troublesome, but threatening by his father.
There’s a lot more going on (more on that later), but the political gamesmanship and Nahri’s attempts to adapt to a new life and navigate its minefields make up the majority of The City of Brass’ plot, which moves between two POVs: Nahri’s and Ali’s.
The background mythology is intriguing and, to use an oxymoron, derivatively imaginative. Chakraborty makes liberal use of all the Arabian Nights imagery and pantheon, with flying carpets, minarets, wishes, etc. Within the broad scope of such borrowed ideas, though, she makes room for her own unique takes, as when, for instance, she catalogs the various illnesses/accidents Nahri sees in her role as healer: “It was possible to accidentally create an evil duplicate, to transform one’s hands into flowers … or to be turned into an apple,” not to mention “a nasty case of chronic unluckiness.” Another nice touch is the way the way the actual physical architecture — the buildings themselves — respond in a personified manner to the presence of “their” people or the enemies of their people. The more one reads, including onward into Kingdom of Copper, the more complex the mythology becomes. The same is true of the history (as opposed to the mythos), with competing versions of “what really happened” at war just as much as the adherents of those histories are.
Characterization is somewhat similar to the mythos in that the character types are familiar but the characters themselves feel wholly themselves and individual. Nahri is the spunky orphan waif — cynical, jaded, street-smart and sassy. Ali is the naïvely ethical “good guy.” His older brother is the usual wine-sotted noble. Their sister is the typical rebelling-against-being-ignored-and-cloistered young woman. Dara is the handsome, powerful warrior and love interest. And the list goes on (the gruff but loving old woman, the plotting court politician …) But, and again this holds true through the sequel as well as The City of Brass, the more you read, the more individualized these characters become, and the more they are forced to adapt to the specific contexts of their situations at any given time. And each is allowed to show various facets that expand them beyond the stock character descriptions just mentioned. Muntadhir is not just a drunken, spoiled prince. He’s torn in all sorts of directions and one truly feels sympathy for him. Ali is principled, but his principles cause all sorts of havoc and death. Dara is handsome (though his looks are complicated by something we learn later), and is a powerful warrior. But his past is monstrously horrible, and he too is torn by who he was, who he is, and who he’d like to be. In stock fashion one would simply lead to the other, but his journey is far more complicated than that. And thus, more individual.
Where the book suffers, I’d say, is in the plotting. Not that it’s bad. Much of the story is actually excellent. But the sheer number of factions, and factions within factions, and current tribal alliances and enmity versus historical tribal alliances and enmity, and more, means it can become more than a little muddy as to who is doing what to whom or for whom and for what reason. The somewhat opaque/arcane plotting didn’t stop me from enjoying the story, but it definitely pulled me up short at times as I tried to work my way back as to why someone was doing/saying something. Streamlining things (but not dumbing the book down) would have helped quite a bit I think.
That said, as noted I quite enjoyed my read, those moments of murkiness were relatively minor and brief, and the climactic last few segments were absolutely wonderful and had me thrilled that I could simply pick up The Kingdom of Copper immediately upon closing The City of Brass. And since book two was equally as good, I feel pretty confident in recommending THE DAEVABAD TRILOGY at his point (dear author: don’t make me regret the early “jump in; the water’s great!”).
The strength and poetry of S.A. Chakraborty’s writing sucked me into The City of Brass immediately and kept me reading throughout all the narrative’s twists and turns (and sometimes too-familiar character beats or plotting). The setting is delightfully imaginative and complex, and I was as charmed by the living city of Daevabad as my fellow reviewers. This first novel in THE DAEVABAD TRILOGY was exciting and I’m already looking forward to diving into my copy of its first sequel, The Kingdom of Copper, as I’m desperate to discover what repercussions and changes await Nahri, Alizayd, Dara, and Muntadhir.
This sounds so fun!
While I was writing this review, I was seriously thinking, Jana would love this! I need to recommend it to her. :)
Are my preferences that easy to guess? ;-)
(And I love the title of your review, btw!)
I’ve been meaning to read this novel since it came out. Now, with the second book in the series coming out soon, I’ll have to read it sooner rather than later!
Lois, I’ve read the second book, The Kingdom of Copper (which comes out tomorrow; my review for it is in process) and liked it even better than the first book!
That’s good to know! Thanks! I’ll look for your review!
Actually I lied, or Goodreads lied. The second book comes out in two weeks, on Jan. 22. :)
It’s all good! It means I have more time to catch up!