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.