S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass is a mesmerizing fantasy tale of magic and intrigue that showcases the very best that the fantasy genre has to offer.
About ‘The City of Brass’
Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of eighteenth-century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trades she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles and a reliable way to survive.
But when Nahri accidentally summons an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to question all she believes. For the warrior tells her an extraordinary tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire, and rivers where the mythical marid sleep; past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises, and mountains where the circling birds of prey are not what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass—a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.
In Daevabad, within gilded brass walls laced with enchantments, behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments are simmering. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, she learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences.
After all, there is a reason they say to be careful what you wish for . . .
‘The City of Brass’ book review
There’s two months left in 2017 and I can already tell you with absolute certainty that this novel is my favorite book of the year.
It succeeds not only as a fantasy novel — combining superb world building, evocative storytelling and mesmerizing, strong characters — but as a perfect example of why diverse narratives and characters are so vital to the genre.
The fantasy genre — at least up until recently — has been my problematic fave. My favorite because I love the scope of it, the epic nature, the immersive experience of entering a completely extraordinary, magical world so very different from my own yet filled with characters and narrative arcs that are as relevant as they wondrous.
Yet it’s also long been a problematic genre in that despite the fact that these are completely imaginary, fantastical worlds, they are still often populated with only or mostly white, traditionally male, straight heroes and the waify, also white, damsels in distress.
And despite having an entire world of mythology to pick and choose from, many fantasy authors still subscribe to creatures set down by the earliest fantasy authors — elves, orcs, dwarves, fairies — who drew mainly from western influences.
That’s certainly not the case in S.A. Chakraborty’s debut novel, which takes place in the Middle East during the 18th century and features magical beings from Islamic mythology — creatures of fire, such as djinn (though they prefer to be called Daeva) and ifrits, and creatures of water, like the marid, to name just a few.
As someone who loves great world building in my fantasy stories, I have to say that the world building in The City of Brass had me swooning. It’s obvious (both from the book itself and her extensive recommended reading list) that Chakraborty knows her stuff when it comes to the historical context of real-world Cairo and the surrounding areas, as well as Islamic folktales and mythologies.
The scenes that take place in the fantastical Daeva city of Daevabad feel just as vivid, gritty and lived-in as the scenes which take place in historical 18th century Cairo. You can not only very clearly see both cities in your mind’s eye, you want to visit them (Daevabad more than Cairo, truthfully, but only to see all the Daeva walking around).
Chakraborty likewise does a fantastic job in weaving mythology and magical background into the story without making it feel like a huge exposition dump or a history lecture, with djinn warrior Dara initially relaying the history of the Daeva (fire elementals who humans know more colloquially as djinn) to our intrepid protagonist, con-artist and all around badass Nahri, while flying aboard a magic carpet.
Speaking of, I could probably easily write a thousand word ode on how much I love all the characters in this novel. I won’t because, you know, I have a word limit I need to meet, but I have to say that it’s the mark of just how incredibly talented of a writer S.A. Chakraborty is that I unabashedly loved all the characters we met in The City of Brass — even the ones that I didn’t necessarily always like.
The novel alternates perspectives between Nahri, who is thrust into a fantastical world after years of scrabbling out an existence as an orphan in the streets of Cairo, and Ali, the second son of the king of Daevabad.
While I was initially more interested in Nahri’s story — first of all, because she’s a badass who I want to both hug and grab a beer with, and secondly because of her absolutely delicious tension and storyline with her enemy-turned-friend-turned-protector-and-something-more, Dara — I very quickly became equally as engaged in Ali’s plotline having to do with Daevabad’s current politics and bloody history.
The minor characters were likewise fleshed out and three dimensional, and I especially loved the dynamics between the three siblings — Ali, Muntadhir and Zaynab — for how absolutely real in felt. Chakraborty captures the love and antagonism present in these relationships and I found myself both smiling at the recognizable dynamics even as my heart ached for these three siblings to just understand one another.
The storyline, too, will keep you enthralled from the very moment you read the first chapter all the way up until you race through the final pages of the book. On its face, it reads as part adventure story, part love story and part political intrigue story.
However, on a deeper level, this is also a story of family and identity — what it means to share a name or to have a specific bloodline running through your veins. And it is also a story of oppression and revolution, of what it means to be a good ruler, a good leader, a good person — and whether any of those things can be compatible with one another.
This is a powerful, stunning novel — not just for the story it tells, but for whom it uses to tell that story. The characters of this novel are all wonderfully, beautifully and proudly brown and black — they wear headscarves and speak Arabic and have names like Jamshid, Alizayd, Darayavahoush.
Best of all, The City of Brass is just the first book in Chakraborty’s planned Daevabad Trilogy , which means we’ll get even more fantastic storytelling and time with these amazing characters.
This is a superbly written, lush fantasy story that deserves to be at the top of your to-read list. I count it as one of the best debuts I’ve ever read and I am so incredibly excited to read The Kingdom of Copper in 2018.