Building a believable and realized world is not an easy task. S.A. Chakraborty’s debut fantasy novel, The City of Brass, is a near perfect world-building blend of myth, history, and originality. The layers of lore, myth, and back story is so thick and rich though that there is a slight price paid in plotting and characters.
We are introduced early on to Nahri in as a young Cairo woman making her living as a con artist during the Napoleonic era occupation of Egypt. She gets by pulling little cons, mostly working marks over with fortune-telling scams and the occasional exorcism. He has magical abilities that she uses for her hustles but beyond that she really has no understanding of where they come from. She also does not understand her natural abilities to understand any language she hears. And in true mythological fashion, she is an orphan who has no idea of who her parents are or of anything else about her family.
One day while performing an exorcism of a young girl she interprets as merely mentally ill, she livens it up by incorporating a summons in a language that she thinks she only knows. Little does she know it actually summons a Daeva warrior and awakens the Ifrit Iwithin the girl. That night she is hunted by the fiery Ifrit while Dara, the Daeva rescues her. Realizing that she is at least part Daeva herself (known as a Shafit) and that the Ifrit are now hunting her, they head to Daevabad, a magical city where only Deava’s, Djinn, and Shafits may enter.
Things aren’t rosy in Daevabad, though as there is growing unrest among the Shafits against the pure blood Djinns. Meanwhile the upper-class nobles who still call themselves Daevas maintain a tribalistic disdain for the Djinn, whom they consider usurpers. The youngest prince of Daevabad, Ali, has sympathy for the Shafits who are treated as second class citizens in the enchanted city. He becomes secretly involved with the Tanzeem, thinking he is contributing to a benevolent organization but his naiveté gets the better of him when they are not what they appear to be.
There is quite a bit of naiveté to go around it seems as Nahri herself gets caught up in the internal politics of Daevabad and its history. She is believed to be the only surviving daughter of Manizeh, a legendary healer who died twenty years ago. She was the last of her kind and it was believed that she had no children. She is named Banu Nahidu, the great healer of the city. Yet she shows herself inept at healing creatures straight out of fairy tales.
Dara, it turns out, is the ancient protector of her family, but with a tainted and bloody past that inspires fear, hatred, and even awe. He is not only secretive of his bloody past, but his memories are foggy as well.
Though the novel is lean on plot development and is a bit of a slow burn as far as narrative action is concerned, the author makes up for it by incorporating middle-eastern myths and modern world building techniques to bring to life an amazing world in her debut novel which is the first in a planned trilogy. There are layers upon layers of internal lore, mixing known myths about Djinns and Ifrits along with the author’s own creation. She also mixes in subtle Islamic myths about the prophet Suleiman (Solomon).
Underlying the heavy lore of The City of Brass is subtle and subversive messages of racism, and especially tribalism. The difference between Djinn and Deavas are really in a name. And yet when Narhi calls Dara a Djinn, he is deeply offended by it. He also shows an illogical hatred for those that call themselves Djinn. And then there are the Shafits who are of blood mixed with humans who are treated poorly
This beautiful novel is not without blemishes, however. Some of those are with the way the characters act or react to things, especially that of Nahri. As streetwise as she comes across in the beginning of the book, somewhere in the middle of the book, she seems to become less street smart and spends time having her heart flutter when in the presence of Dara to being extremely naive about the what it will take to survive in her adopted city. She shows little interest in learning about her family history, the history of the Deavas or of her supposed mother and family. This is a little frustrating since a good con artist would learn a few things about their surroundings just by instinct.
Dara, himself does not come across as a very sympathetic character. He is quite short-tempered and bears a centuries old grudge against the al Qahtani, the ruling family of Daevabad. He is also elitist and rather prejudiced against those who have adopted to calling themselves Djinn as opposed to Daevas. And he is especially disdainful of Shafits.
Ali’s role comes across later as the good guy, in contrast to Dara’s bad boy image. Though he is a competent warrior and member of the city’s elite guards, he is also bookish and empathetic to the sufferings about him of the Shafits. He may have the bigger character arc as he will have to deal with his empathy for the suffering against his love and loyalty to his father.
King Ghassan al Qahtani is a surprisingly nuanced character. Not evil, but pragmatic in his rule of Daevabad. He also loves his children dearly, yet will cut will not hesitate to cut ties with them if it became necessary.
This is a very rich and lush book of will engulf you into a world full of Djinn, Ifrits, and many other magical creatures. And yes, there is even a flying carpet. S.A. Chakraborty’s website has a helpful guide to the world of the Daevabad Trilogy. The book also has a glossary in the back. It can come in handy because there is a lot to digest in this world.
The novel closes at a cliffhanger and I have the follow-up book The Kingdom of Copper on my too read pile already. This book is Highly Recommended.