I thoroughly enjoyed S. A. Chakraborty’s first book The City of Brass, which was at its core just a good story. I’m happy to report that the follow-up, The Kingdom of Copper (2019), is even better, continuing the captivating narrative but also deepening its exploration of the more serious themes that were apparent in book one but not fully mined. Fair warning: some unavoidable spoilers for the first book to follow. I’m also going to assume you’ve read The City of Brass and so won’t go into too many explanations of people/settings.
The Kingdom of Copper picks up not long after the events of The City of Brass, with the banished prince Ali escaping an assassination attempt and ending up alone and without supplies in the endless desert. Back in Daevabad, Nahri, has been forced to marry Muntadhir, Ali’s older brother and the crown prince of the realm, and the two face an awkward loveless wedding night. And in the most exotic of the three opening settings, the powerful Daeva (djinn) Dara wakes up in a sort of limbo to find his long-dead sister waiting for him, though their conversation is all too brief.
After these opening scenes, Chakraborty jumps forward in time five years, and we see what these three have made of their new lives. Ali, surprisingly, has found himself playing a leadership role amongst the desert dwellers who saved his life, a debt he’s repaid through use of his odd (and concerning) new abilities that manifested following his possession by the marid at the end of The City of Brass. Nahri, under the thumb of Ali’s despotic father Ghassan, finds herself some new allies as she strengthens her position in the city and hones her skills as a healer. And Dara, pulled back into the world, albeit in somewhat different form, becomes enmeshed in a conspiracy to overthrow Ghassan and take back Daevabad for the Daeva. And boiling underneath all of this are the ongoing tensions between tribes and between those who scorn the shafit (products of djinn-human mating) and those who seek to protect them. Events move along relatively quietly early on, but are quickened and intensified by Ali’s return to the city.
The book continues the alternating POV structure from The City of Brass, but in addition to Ali and Nahri’s POV’s, Dara’s is added to the mix as well. All three characters remain torn in how to respond to the complex situations they find themselves in, mostly because there are no easy answers to those situations. And by that I don’t mean there are no easy answers until one magically (sometimes literally) appears, as is too often the case in books. It is often gut-wrenching to see these characters wrestle with the reality that sometimes situations are lose-lose. That’s not to say there are no right decisions, or better ones, but that those decisions don’t come easily or without painful repercussions. This is one reason why Dara’s POV was so welcome, as his is the character who is most directly involved in monstrous events and is desperately seeking a way out from repeating those same decisions. Whether or not he can be redeemed, or if there is even such a thing as redemption after his earlier actions, is one of the more compelling concerns of The Kingdom of Copper. And without spoiling anything, Chakraborty’s penchant for presenting us with some harsh realities make this plot line more tense and uncertain than is typical for this typical type of narrative.
All three continue to grow from their introduction in book one, reexamining some of their long-held beliefs or knee-jerk reactions, and also trying to come with terms with their sense of isolation and separation. Nahri from having grown up in the human world and being apparently the last of her kind; Dara from being so ancient, a being ripped out of time; and Ali thanks to his conservatism and his urban aristocratic upbringing compared to the rough desert dwellers. No surprise, then, that all three also spend a good amount of time pondering lives that could have been or could be: Nahri longing for Cairo, Ali for the simpler life back in the country, maybe with a wife and child, and Dara, perhaps most poignantly, wishing simply for an end.
While the surface story is compelling enough — tense, suspenseful, engaging throughout — the novel’s underlying themes greatly deepen the reading experience. One needn’t think too hard to make connections between events in The Kingdom of Copper and our own world regarding topics such as immigration, racism/bigotry, concentration and abuse of power, sexism, and the cost of vengeance/vendetta. As one character tells Ali:
We are a scapegoat; a slight diminishment in taxes does not cause the damage I know you’ve seen. Keeping a third of the population in slavery and squalor does. Oppressing another third to the point where they self-segregate does … People do not thrive under tyrants, Alizayd; they do not come up with innovations when they’re busy trying to stay alive.
Or later, as Ali himself says:
I’m tired of everyone in this city feeding on vengeance. I’m tired of teaching our children to hate and fear other children because their parents are our enemies. And I’m sick and tired of acting like the only way to save our people is to cut down all who might oppose us, as if our enemies won’t return the favor the instant power shifts.
And in the day of MeToo, the echo of these lines said to Nahri are clear: “I know what it’s like to have ambitions, to be the cleverest in the room … To have men who are less than you bully and threaten you into a place you know you don’t belong.”
Similar to its predecessor, The Kingdom of Copper builds to a powerful close, which I’d say bodes well for the last book in THE DAEVABAD TRILOGY. I, for one, will be looking forward to it.
The Kingdom of Copper, the second book in S.A. Chakraborty’s DAEVABAD TRILOGY picks up soon after the ending of the first book, The City of Brass. Alizayd (Ali) al Qahtani, younger son of Ghassan, the king of Daevabad, has been exiled and is fair game for assassins. He’s rescued by a raiding party from the drought-ridden area of Bir Nabat, who have noticed Ali’s newly-developed magical ability to summon water. Nahri has been forced by Ghassan into a loveless match with his older son Muntadhir, the pleasure-loving crown prince. Darayavahoush, the powerful djinn with a long and unspeakably violent past, is summoned from his sister’s side in the land of the dead to a new life by Nahri’s outlaw mother Manizheh, who controls Dara’s emerald slave ring and has plans to use him for her political takeover of the djinn’s legendary city of Daevabad.
After setting the stage, the story jumps forward five years. Nahri, who has long felt trapped by the royal family, finds new inspiration in her plan to restore a long-ruined hospital, helping the outcast shafit, who are of human/djinn mixed blood, as well as pureblooded djinn, or daeva. Ali’s magical affinity for water has brought new life to Bir Nabat, changing it from a wasteland to a fruitful place where Ali has found safety and respect. But political forces are combining to bring Ali back to Daevabad and into danger. And Dara has become Manizheh’s military advisor, helping her plan an invasion of Daevabad to retake the city from Ghassan and the Geziri tribe, who have controlled it for many years.
It’s always a pleasant surprise for me when the second book of a series isn’t a let-down, and I consider The Kingdom of Copper a better book than The City of Brass. Most of the confusing elements from the first book have been worked out. The plot is far more coherent and focused, and the pacing has noticeably improved. As Bill comments, this is just excellent story-telling.
The point of view shifts between Nahri, Ali and Dara, but each of their stories pulled me in, and it was easy to see the connection points between the three plot threads and point-of-view characters. Each of these characters has a distinct challenge to overcome in his or her life, and in the process questions who they really are and what they want to achieve. It’s not a simple answer in any of their cases. Nahri and Ali both have parents who they love, but cannot agree with their actions. Dara is bound to assist Manizheh with her invasion, but has serious reservations about her plans.
This complexity of character extends itself to the secondary characters. It’s refreshing to see characters that I had dismissed as one-dimensional (Nahri’s husband Muntadhir is a good example) begin to display unexpected depths. Ghassan’s tyranny is indisputable, but it’s easy to see how his reign began with good intentions.
The related themes of conquest and oppression, so prevalent in The City of Brass, are explored in some new ways. Manizheh considers the city rightly hers, but her plans for taking it over begin to look suspiciously like the same methods her enemies used long ago. Revenge and violence are poisons that can make you morally indistinguishable from your enemies. Nahri’s efforts to rebuild the hospital and to serve shafit as well as Daeva may hold the seeds for cooperation and peace, but is it too late?
The Kingdom of Copper was both heart-wrenching and a pleasure to read. It’s certainly not all heavy and downbeat; there are doses of humor and enchanting magic, like the palace stairs that rise to help Nahri when she’s fleeing her enemy, along with the passageways that magically brick themselves up behind her. And it’s easy to root for the three main characters ― even Dara, by far the most morally gray of the trio. I’m definitely looking forward to the next book … even without the cliffhanger ending that promises to be a major game-changer!
~ Tadiana Jones