The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty. ★★★★
This debut fantasy novel is truly splendid, embedding the 18th century Middle East with the magic of the djinn.
Nahri is a con artist making her living on the streets of Cairo. While she knows some of the things she can do are not ordinary (she can perceive illness in a person just by touching them), she doesn’t really believe in magic. That is, until she accidentally summons a djinn. But once the magical world is made aware of Nahri’s presense, it’s not safe for her to continue her life in Cairo, and the djinn, Dara, insists that she go to Daevabad, a kingdom of djinn and humans with djinn blood.
But Daevabad is filled with political instability. Prince Ali, the other viewpoint character, is secretly going against his father’s wishes and funding a so called “terrorist” organization that helps the citizens with human ancestry, who are a large and oppressed underclass in Daevabad. The djinn tribe that historically ruled Daevabad (but no longer) religiously supported the inferiority of those with human ancestry and banned the mingling of blood. Their royal family was renown for being supernatural healers, but the last of them died years ago. Or so everyone thought.
At this point you can probably see how dropping Nahri into Daevabad is akin to dropping a lit match into a barrel of gunpowder. Chakraborty excels at writing political fantasy and courtly intrigue. Since the story type is sort of familiar (plucky orphan girl discovers she has magical powers and an important position in a royal court), I was worried that it could end up seeming tired. I never felt that way at all. Chakraborty’s writing keeps the story fresh, and I would count it among some of my other favorite court fantasies, such as The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.
I loved the world Chakraborty created. It’s lush and detailed enough to feel vibrant and real, and I’m always glad to get away from Euro-centric settings. I particuarly liked how Chakraborty created different tribes of djinn, each with their own culture, history, powers, and tensions with the other tribes. The background of Daevabad’s history never felt extraneous, and it made The City of Brass that much more memorable.
I enjoyed Nahri’s cleverness and determination; plus, I have a fondness for con artist protagonists that she plays into perfectly. However, I wasn’t sure how much agency she had in the story. Her initial action sets off her introduction to the magical world, but I’m not sure what impacts her actions have afterwords. That said, I think she’s being set up to do a lot more in the sequels (The City of Brass is the first in a trilogy).
I was rather surprised when Ali’s perspective first showed up, as the back blurb gave no clue there was a POV character other than Nahri. At first, I would want to get through his sections to get back to Nahri’s, but then I found myself looking forward to Ali’s sections more. He’s the younger son of the king, being raised to be the military right hand of his older brother. He’s more religious than is the norm for the court, and he’s prejudiced against the other major religious group in the city, the tribe his ancestors conquered to rule Daevabad. Yet he’s also more empathetic than others might guess, and he cares strongly about the plight of those with human ancestry in Daevabad, who are generally mistreated by the full blood djinn. His idealism threatens to get him into trouble more than once. In short, I found him to be a very complex character, and by the end of The City of Brass, he was clearly my favorite.
Good news for me — The City of Brass wasn’t heavy on the romance. Oh, there was some. Dara, the djinn who Nahri first meets, is remarkably handsome. Believe me, Nahri lets us know. Yes, he has tragedies in his past, but I still found him to be one of those annoyingly possessive alpha male type love interests. And here we get to the remarkable bit: the narrative doesn’t idealize it! I can’t say much more for spoiler reasons, but I found it to be delightfully subversive.
The beginning of The City of Brass might have been a bit slow, but by the second half I had trouble putting it down. It’s intricate, beautiful, and possibly one of the best fantasy books I read in 2017. If you’re looking for historical fantasy, non-Western fantasy or a young adult cross over, I suggest you read The City of Brass.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.