Serena’s Review: “City of Brass”

32718027Book: “City of Brass” by S. A. Chakraborty

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, November 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: e-ARC from the Edelweiss

Book Description: 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.

After all, there is a reason they say be careful what you wish for . . .

Review: In addition to my e-galley, I nabbed a copy of this while Kate and I were sneaking around early exploring the exhibit hall. I really knew nothing about it beyond the fact that the cover was beautiful, and it had a blurb that referenced ‘The Golem and the Jinni,” which is a historical fantasy novel from a few years ago that I absolutely adored. So I went into this one with practically no expectations, and wow. I mean…wow. S. A. Chakraborty is a new author to sit up and pay attention to!

First off, the description above is a bit misleading. Yes, we do follow the story of Nahri, a street con woman who finds herself to have a mystical heritage and one that is paramount to the future of a vast and complicated fantastical world where djinn, marids, and many, many others roam and war with each other. However, chapters alternate between her adventures and those of Ali, a young, second son of Ghallan, the current ruler of Daevabad. Ali has been trained as a warrior to serve as a general, essentially, for his older brother when he takes over. But Ali is also a deeply religious young man, and when he looks at his family’s dealings with the shafit (half human, half djinn), he sees only oppression and wrong doings.

There is so much to praise about this book. It is atmospheric, bringing to life large swaths of the Middle East. We travel from the streets of ancient Cairo, to the foothills of what is likely Persia, across desserts and great rivers, and finally, into a fully-realized magical realm that seamlessly blends creative magical elements (like bizarre illnesses, strange creatures, and fantastical architecture) alongside traditional, historic middle eastern touches. And Chakraborty has peopled this world with an equally diverse and well-drawn cast of characters. Yes, there are magical beasts, liked winged lions. But there are also various types of humanoid-beings. The djinn are a fire people. There are the rumored Marid, a water people. And, the most powerful of all,  a people of the air. Among these, roam the shafit, whose complicated history with the djinn sits at the heart of this story.

This history is perhaps one of the most impressive parts of the story. Not only is it complicated enough that I was still fitting pieces together towards the end of the book (in this case, this is a compliment, as it was complicated for important reasons, not due to poor writing, which is often the case behind lasting confusion), but the author successfully challenges readers at every step to evaluate and re-evalutate and AGAIN re-evalutate who are the heroes and villains in each version of history we hear. And the best part: this is never made clear. I love this nuanced take on storytelling, as I feel it reads the most honest to true history. The stories are told by the winners, and often the winners have contributed their own atrocities to succeed in the first place. And in this book’s case, we have such a long history presented, that the winners of one historic conflict, are the losers of the next. One side is oppressed at one point, only to oppress the other at the next, while that oppressed group now holds the keys to peace going forward. There are no simple “good guys” and “bad guys” in this story. And by the end, I’m firmly rooting for three different characters who all fall on one extreme, the middle, and the other extreme of a very complicated spectrum.

And this brings me to my last point. All of this history and world-building is supported by an amazingly strong cast of characters. To support this kind of ongoing conflict that is constantly questioning the morality of one group’s choices or the other, you must have sympathetic and interesting characters to make you care. Nahri is the exact type of heroine I love. She’s well-rounded, has a distinct personality, is sassy, but also knows when to bend, and, importantly, she is flawed. Ali, the second protagonist, is also incredibly strong. He had more work to do as he took me by surprise, but I found myself equally enjoying his earnest and often naive view of the world he lives in and the role he is expected to play. And then lastly, we have Dara, a djinn warrior of legend who befriends and protects Nahri. Even by the end of the story, we’re not sure who exactly this character is. But the sweet romance that begins to develop between him and Nahri is the exact sort of slow burn love story that I like, and I’m curious to see what will happen with this particular character and plot line moving forward.

I honestly can’t recommend this book enough. As I said, I picked this up because it sounded like “The Golem and the Jinni.” Turns out, I loved it even more than that one. For those looking for a smart, complicated, fantasy novel set in a unique environment, definitely check out “The City of Brass.” Now I’ll just frantically stare down the calendar while I wait for the sequel!

Rating 10:  The best kind of surprise. I honestly have zero criticisms for this book, and that’s a feat on its own!

Reader’s Advisory:

“City of Brass” is on these Goodreads lists: “Muslims Represented in Literature” and “2017 SFF by Authors of Color.”

Find “City of Brass” at your library using WorldCat!

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