The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of 18th century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles.
But when Nahri accidentally summons an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to accept that the magical world she thought only existed in childhood stories is real. For the warrior tells her a new tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire, and rivers where the mythical marid sleep; past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises, and mountains where the circling hawks are not what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass, a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.
In that city, behind gilded brass walls laced with enchantments, behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments are simmering. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, she learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences.
I. LOVED. THIS. BOOK.
Honestly, I adored it so much that I’m not sure I can even really talk about what it is that I liked so much. I’m not sure I really know what it is that I liked so much. It was different from anything I’d ever read before, it was so well written, it checked all the boxes of things I love in a fantasy book. I just … loved it.
The Middle-Eastern setting was a big part of what made The City of Brass so unique. Chakraborty did an excellent job in that it felt authentically middle-eastern, not just exotic for the sake of writing something about genies. Even though I know literally NOTHING about Egypt in this time period, the descriptions were so lush and vivid that I had no trouble imagining. And the culture was so authentically and seamlessly worked in.
On a similar topic, Chakraborty handled religion very well. As one might expect of the middle-east, especially in this time period, everyone practices religion. However, many modern fantasy novels play this off as old-fashioned or that the masses have been purposefully mis-led by the founders of those relgions. Instead, Chakraborty provided opposing ideas about the importance of religion tastefully and meaningfully. In one especially moving scene, a character says, essentially (and I am NOT directly quoting) “I always assumed this was something that they just made up to gain power, but as soon as you were in danger I was praying faster than any priest.” She provides a nuanced view of competing religions, which was especially powerful in a part of the world where literally every major religion in existence has been practiced at some point or another. I love that Chakraborty didn’t just brush religion to the side, but didn’t feel the need to throw it front and center either.
On the last note of setting, the language was incorporated throughout in a way that made everything feel more vibrant and weird. However, the sheer number of unfamiliar words and names (some Arabic, some made up) were hard to keep up with. This is always a struggle in fantasy, especially when a family name is mentioned and then not seen again for a couple of hundred pages. A glossary is provided in the back, but it is not comprehensive.
Alright, sorry to rant. Next!
Djinn. OH MY GOODNESS. I loved the djinn in this novel! It was such a refreshing style of magic compared to the elves/high fantasy, wizards/witches, and vampires/fae currently saturating the fantasy market. While not really all that different from the way these things are typically presented, just the fact that they were new creatures with a new mythology made all the difference for me.
I also just *adored* the characters. The female lead, Nahri, is more or less what you expect from a female lead in 2019: she’s strong, orphaned, sassy, and of surprise magical blood. But she was, nevertheless, wildly entertaining. Ali was the real stand-out for me, though. The male lead, he flat-out ignored all expectations for that role. He is young, naive, devout, and innocent. He tends to act brashly, but rarely in anger.
As the book starts, you can’t see how these characters can possibly have anything to do with one another. But as the narrative goes on, their journeys bring them closer and closer together. Only a few chapters before they finally collided did I realize that they were going to be on opposite ends of the competing ideologies, and the tension only grew from there.
I also loved Nahri’s Daeva companion, Dara. The reader is presented, through the dual narrators, two different views of who Dara is. I loved that I couldn’t figure him out, and I loved trying. His chemistry with Nahri was electric without ever becoming graphic.
All in all, one of my absolute favorite reads of the year. I immediately went out to buy the sequel, The Kingdom of Copper, and I can’t WAIT to find out what happens next! I highly recommend The City of Brass to fantasy lovers of all stripes.