Title: The City of Brass (2017)
Author: S.A. Chakraborty
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Read: 8th – 20th February 2019
Genre: fantasy; historical fantasy
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“Among the bustling markets of eighteenth century Cairo, the city’s outcasts eke out a living swindling rich Ottoman nobles and foreign invaders alike. But alongside this new world the old stories linger. Tales of djinn and spirits. Of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert, full of enchantment, desire and riches. Where magic pours down every street, hanging in the air like dust. Many wish their lives could be filled with such wonder, but not Nahri. She knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about them. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes. Be careful what you wish for.” (Synopsis from publisher)
S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass is a story I’ve read twice now, but it was only on re-reading this book a year or so later, that I really feel like I was able to properly form a conclusion about this story, rate it, and review it. The first time I read The City of Brass it was an eARC (graciously provided by the publisher) with slightly dodgy formatting and a slow, plodding pace that I barely could keep the world building straight in my head because it had been so long since I’d been introduced to it all in the first few chapters of the book. On re-read, I chose to pick up the hardback and the audiobook (magnificently read by Soneela Nankani) and I’m glad that I made the decision to re-read this story because I now better appreciate the skill behind its plotting, world-building, and characterisation.
“Judging from the screams of the mob, Nahri suspected animating winged lions that breathed flames was not a regular occurrence to the djinn world.”
This book is a book that dumps you into the fantasy scenario and expects you to keep up – if you don’t, that’s your own problem, and the story doesn’t hand-hold you all the way. At times, it can be a little info-dump-y, but that’s because the central character, Nahri, is an outsider to the world of the djinn and so when she is introduced to this otherwise invisible world by the djinn slave named Dara, whom she accidentally summons in a moment of peril, we are also being introduced to it alongside her. It’s a fairly well-used literary device but it can make the storyline, especially once Nahri and Dara journey to the titular city of Daevabad, a little hard to grasp fully. After two reads, I’m not sure I’ve even fully grasped the twists and the turns of the world-building but it’s something I have complete confidence that Chakraborty understands inside and out and will slowly unravel as the sequel books continue to play out this long history of Daevastana and its warring tribes of peoples.
“Twice his height and carved from sky blue marble, the throne originally belonged to the Nahids and looked it, a monument to the extravagance that had gotten them overthrown. It was designed to turn its occupant into a living shedu, the legendary winged lion that had been their family symbol.”
In terms of characters there are three main protagonists, I’d say: Nahri, a not-so-innocent young woman living in Cairo who has a strange affinity for sensing disease in people but mostly just cons them; Darayavahoush, an enslaved djinn warrior and last of the Afshin (a military caste who were the right hand men of the Nahid people) whose exploits under the command of his previous masters are famed throughout the lands; and Ali, the idealistic second son of the current ruler of Daevastana whose skill with the zulfiqar blade and morally upright(eousness) character make him perhaps a more appealing future ruler than his older brother. From the very opening chapter, Nahri is an outspoken and strong female character – not in that all too tropey, “strong female character” mould but rather in terms of her character and fortitude when she’s dropped amidst not only a physically dangerous but, later, also a politically difficult, situation in a world that is so unlike the one she has left behind. She is headstrong and funny and doesn’t take anyone’s crap, let alone her djinn companion, Dara’s.
” ‘You’re some kind of thief, then?’
‘That a very narrow-minded way of looking at it. I prefer to think of myself as a merchant of delicate tasks.’ “
Unceremoniously and accidentally summoned back into the world by Nahri, Dara finds himself dragging her across the country to Daevabad, the city of his people created from pure Daeva magic, as he suspects she is the daughter of the city’s last Nahid, a tribe of peoples who were healers. Suddenly, Nahri’s gift for ‘sensing’ disease seems to make a lot more sense. Dara, however, does not expect a warm welcome in the city as the last time he was there he helped to scourge it – his reputation as a fearsome warrior makes for an uncomfortable welcoming committee by the Al Qahtanis, the current ruling family of Daevabad, of whom Ali is one. Ali was, hands down, my favourite character. For all I enjoyed Dara and Nahri’s blossoming relationship, Ali was the idiot character to whom I owe my heart. Intellectually smart, he despises what he sees as the fickleness and show of the court and scorns the world of socialising that his brother, Muntadhir, so loves, instead taking refugee in concentrating on training to become his brother’s qaid, the person who will help Muntadhir to rule when he ascends to the throne, essentially the one who will do all of the leg work of actually keeping a city under control, whilst his brother manages the entertaining side of things. It’s a role to which Ali is raised, and which he seems suited, but his penchant for trying to help the downtrodden of the city lead him down a slippery slope to (potential) treason, for all his allegedly good intentions. It is following him as he gets in over his head, to put it lightly, that completely endeared me to his character, but it was the development of his storyline and his later interactions with Nahri that cemented him as a favourite. I just worry what the next book will bring.
“[Ali] stopped, surprised by the kiss Muntadhir suddenly planted on his forehead. ‘What?’
Muntadhir only shook his head, exasperated affection in his face. ‘Oh, akhi… you’re going to get eaten alive here.’ “
Moving away from the characters, the world itself is stunning and enchanting, but also deadly. Chakraborty doesn’t shy away from showing how dangerous the city is for people who don’t conform to its ways. Running underneath the alleged calm there is an undercurrent of distaste and distrust for its current rulers, largely due to the way that they took power, and as a reader you constantly get the sense that there could well be rebellions bubbling beneath the surface – by the factions of ifrit (the cursed Daeva enemies of the Nahids) or the shafit (part-human, part-djinn peoples). None of the characters ever feel quite safe – it seems like everyone is capable of being led, or wilfully going, astray and finding themselves on the wrong side of the king, Ghassan, which is never a good place to be. Ghassan is portrayed as exacting and merciless, everything a strong leader likely needs to be, but it is his tight hold on the city that makes for some more questionable decisions when it comes to his family. Chakraborty never shies away from showing the dark, malicious side of the ruler and his kingdom, but equally never shies away from also showing how capable of inexcusable violence and abuse some of the “good characters” of this story are. It’s part and parcel of the world they live in, with its complicated social and political class system where tribe loyalties are tested to the extreme
“Greatness takes time, Banu Nahida. Often the mightiest things have the humblest beginnings.”
In conclusion, The City of Brass marks the first outing in what is bound to be an enthralling and enchanting trilogy of books, richly plotted and masterfully told by S.A. Chakraborty. The complex world which readers are plunged into is never easy, but if you’re willing to put the time and effort into immersing yourself in a story whose cultural touchstones may very well not be immediately familiar to you, then you will find your reward in City of Brass and its cast of morally questionable characters. Despite the book’s serious maelstrom of political unrest, treasonous plotting, and brutal violence, there are moments of levity, situations that will make you cringe with the awkwardness of it all, and scenes which will make you love the characters for their audacity – if you are willing to put the time into the compelling world of Daevastana and its djinn, you won’t be sorry you did.
” ‘Someone steals form me, I steal from others, and I’m sure the people I stole from will eventually take something that doesn’t belong to them. It’s a circle,’ she added wisely, as she gnawed on the chewy bread.
Dara stared at her for a good few heartbeats before speaking. ‘There is something very wrong with you.’ “