Review: City of Brass by by S.A. Chakraborty

On the cusp of the 19th century, Nahri eeks out a fragile existence in Cairo — a city newly occupied by the forces of Napoleon. She gets by with a combination of con-artistry and theft but underlying these is a genuine gift that allows her to perceive the true health of the people she encounters. She dreams of properly studying medicine and hopes that one day she might make enough money to start a new life in Istanbul.

Healing isn’t her only gift though. Nahri also has an extraordinary ability with languages and underneath that is her first language — one that only she speaks. As she has no knowledge or memory of her parents, she does not even know the name of her native tongue.

Street-wise and sceptical, Nahri is well equipped for most situations until her participation in a ritual has real supernatural consequences. Confronted by a child possessed by a demonic ifrit, Nahri is rescued by the mythic warrior Dara — a being she suspects that she summoned herself.

I’m a bit late starting S.A. Chakraborty’s 2017 fantasy series or, on the otherhand, I’m just in time as the third part of what is now a trilogy was published this year. The novel follows Nahri from Cairo to the magical city of Daevabad where a second point-of-view character awaits, the djinn prince Ali. Pious and idealistic, Ali is second in line to the throne but is torn between his familial duty and his concern for the shafit under-class of the city — the half-human/half-djinn people who are treated unjustly by ruling families. Nor is this the only fracture point in the city. Daevabad is a conquered city ruled by djinn from Arabia who practice Islam (to some degree) who supplanted the formerly hegemonic daevas, whose noble families have not entirely forgiven their centuries old ousting.

It’s a compelling fantasy that leans into the fantastical tropes Western audiences associate with the middle-east (powerful potentates, scheming viziers, flying carpets) with more complex world building and some familiar elements from modern fantasy. Marketed as adult fantasy, the story includes a YA-ish love triangle as Nahri finds herself drawn to both Dara and Ali who are intransigently opposed to one another and (to varying degrees) bad people (Dara more so than Ali).

The novel slows once Nahri reaches Daevabad and I missed the more action orientated pace of the earlier section, when she and Dara are fleeing from the various magical beings intent on their destruction. Within the city, the story follows a more complex path of political struggles and unresolved historical atrocities that haunt the city’s communities. The struggle between the djinn and the daevas mirrors the cultural split between the Arabic and Iranian/Persian influence. Daevas follow a Zororastrian-like ‘older’ religion, meanwhile the djinn are technically also daevas but adopted the Arabic term ‘djinn’, as well as Islam because of their closer ties to humans.

However, the period of calm when Nahri begins to adjust to life in the titular City of Brass cannot last. Her arrival is a catalyst in a city that has three-way divide and a legacy of death and secrets. Before long, her world begins to rapidly unravel once again.

Despite the magical setting, the conflicts within the city feel very real. The horribly flawed characters (of which Nahri is the least problematic) are believable and engaging even as their dark past becomes clearer. Creating sympathetic character that are nonetheless irredeemably flawed, is a tricky business that runs the risk of making excuses for genuine acts of evil. I’m not sure S.A. Chakraborty succeeds but she does make it plausible that a person could be both likeable and capable of horrific acts.

I’ll definitely read the second book (The Kingdom of Copper) and see where this goes.

9 thoughts on “Review: City of Brass by by S.A. Chakraborty

  1. I enjoyed this trilogy a bunch (my review of this first novel is here: https://garik16.blogspot.com/2017/11/scififantasy-book-review-city-of-brass.html) – and I too had issues with the pacing both in this novel and book 2 – Chakraborty features in both the plot trope where you know that something is going to happen at a future time (in this book, the main characters meeting up in Daevabad) and the book taking what seems to be an abysmally long time to get there, so that at least one part of the narrative drags.

    I will warn that while books 1 and 2 – especially 2 – try to deal with complicated issues of problematic histories (how to rule a conquered city, the conflict between Daevas and the shafit, etc etc) and protagonists, book 3 kind of pushes much of that to the side in order to wipe the slate clean in a way to provide resolution. Chakraborty does bite off a bit more than she can chew…but I enjoyed Nahri (especially her), Ali and some of the more minor characters enough that it still generally worked for me.

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  2. Marketed as adult fantasy, the story includes a YA-ish love triangle as Nahri finds herself drawn to both Dara and Ali who are intransigently opposed to one another and (to varying degrees) bad people (Dara more so than Ali).

    My library has three copies of this, two of which are in the YA Paperbacks section and the other of which is in the adult SF/F section. My library does sometimes make weird decisions over what to shelve as YA but it does highlight the extent to which the line is blurry. (Irritatingly, said library still does not have a copy of The Empire of Gold and it is driving me to test whether or not interlibrary loan is up and running right now.)

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    1. This wasn’t advertised as YA and honestly I wouldn’t classify it as such (I also think that unless a book markets itself as YA, it really shouldn’t be shelved as such, although that’s not as big a deal in a library as a bookstore). Nahri and Ali are both in their 20s I think (I’m not sure we ever get an age), neither are in any sort of school, and while they each grow as people, it’s not the type of growing you normally see as “growing up” as in much YA literature as much as growing through experiences of a cruel difficult world.

      This is a trilogy that certainly will be enjoyed by readers of all ages (hell, there’s not even any sex scenes, which much YA does have) so it’s not like it’ll be bad for YA readers to pick it up, but it’s not marketed or messaged towards those readers.

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      1. I think it is stated that they neither have quite reached a formal age of majority according to the conventions of Daevabod. Also, protagonists in their 20s makes sense for books aimed at people in their teens.

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      2. Books with MCs in their 20s are generally marketed as either adult or “new adult”. YA is pretty specifically teens or earlier.

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