The best endorsement of the opening book of a fantasy trilogy is when you immediately launch into the next book. That doesn’t always mean the first book is good but it does mean that by the end of the first book you are sufficiently invested in the fate of the characters to find out what happens next. An even better endorsement is when you finish the second book and are desperate to read the third.
I reviewed the first book of Shannon Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy the other week. I then immediately bought the audio book for the second and I’m delighted to say that I enjoyed it even more. I know I’ve been sceptical of the viability of the Hugo Best Series Award but the most compelling argument for the need for such an award is that there is something distinct about a series. Developing a plot and characters over multiple books allows for depth and layers that aren’t necessarily apparent in a single volume of the series. I don’t want to get ahead of myself as I haven’t read book 3 yet but so far I’ve been impressed.
I’ll pause here a moment to say that after this point there are some spoilers for City of Brass and an immediate spoiler for Kingdom of Copper after the fold. The spoiler for the second book is a reveal in the first chapter but if you’d rather not know, do not read on.
When we last saw them Nahri (the Egyptian thief who is actually the lost heir to the former ruling family of the magical city of Daevabad) was left with no choice but to marry the crown prince after her escape attempt goes horribly wrong. Former Daeva warrior, ex-magical slave and ressurrected historical figure Dara had been killed very permanently via the intervention of the water-beings called the Marid (like djinn but wet). Second in line to the throne Ali had been exiled and left to the mercy of assassins because 1. he’d been possessed by the Marid 2. his popularity with the soldiers was a threat to his brother’s future rule 3. his naive ethics was annoying everybody and 4. too many other things to list.
The book opens shortly after these immediate events taking us to Nahri’s wedding night (it goes badly), Ali finding a new home in the desert and Dara singularly failing to stay dead. The book then skips ahead a few years to establish the characters in a new status quo which then rapidly unravels through the course of the book. Chakraborty does an excellent job of ensuring that readers know that everything is all going to go horribly wrong as soon as any character appears to be making progress towards peace, justice or personal happiness while keeping the exact way things will go horribly wrong sufficiently surprising to make the plot sparkle.
The social-political dynamic of the city is drawn in broad brush strokes and it feels very believable despite the groupings resting on historical magical events. The three way split, with the ruling Qahtani family fuelling and exploiting the conflict between the Daevas (Persian-themed djinn-like beings) and the Shafit (half human djinn confined to Daevabad) is frustratingly believable. The underlying conflict between Daevas and Shafit combines religion, caste, tribe, social class and wealth inequality in a thoroughly believable way. Yes, the obvious solution (Daevas and Shafit putting aside their differences to other throw the increasingly tyrannical king) is also impossible and yet…the possibility of a different, better Daevabad is personified in the form of Nahri whose circumstances places her in multiple social groupings simultaneously.
Chakraborty’s website has a handy appendix-at-the-back-of-the-fantasy-trilogy like page here https://www.sachakraborty.com/the-world-of-daevabad.html with a break down of who is who and what is what.
Having said that, as clever and plausible as this central conflict is, we do have a book centred on the Middle East and South Asia that presents us with an apparent entrenched and unresolvable inter-ethnic and religious conflict. There’s a fine line there between exploring the dynamics of such conflicts (which occur everywhere obviously) and playing into Western tropes about the Middle East as a region of irredeemable disputes. The way out of the negative cliches is the examination of the power held by the Qahtanis. The villain of the piece is Ghassan who overtly acts to maintain stability in Daevabad but who ensures that the conflict between the wealthy-but-out-of-power Daevas and the poor & marginalised Shafit works in the favour of his rule. The interminable conflict is not natural or inevitable or unsolvable but rather the consequence of powerful people exploiting it for their personal gain or out of their personal pain.
I don’t know if book 3 (Empire of Gold) will be as good. I suspect not as resolving the plot lines of the three core characters will be inevitably require some quick fixes. Their remains an underlying mystery about the motives of the Marid and I’m curious to see what the hidden driver of events has been.