I’m going to admit that The City of Brass was a Bookstagram cover buy.
And I’m going to be VERY clear here: I’m talking about the UK/AU cover on the left which is sock-you-in-the-jaw-and-knock-you-out awesome.
The US cover on the right is umm…average. In fact, I’d walk right past it in a bookshop.
Right away, the hook on the AU cover drew me right in:
Be careful what you wish for.
And THAT blurb!
The promise of Eighteenth century Cairo, Islam and pre-Islamic Persian mythology colliding, with a hint of muskets, magic and colonialism.
Could there be a more perfect book for me?
I started the book with high expectations, as part of a buddy-read on Bookstagram. When a book has been hyped all over Instagram, sometimes it’s a complete let down (Sarah Maas, I’m looking at YOU).
However, I absolutely loved The City of Brass.
Throughout every chapter I immersed myself in the world of Daevabad and by the end of the book, I didn’t want to leave.
And yes, I had a book hangover at the end.
I can understand now why there’s a huge library of fanart out there for this series.
Nahri by @adamar.art
However, I’ve also seen critical reviews on GR saying it’s slow or boring.
I totally disagree.
I’ll say straight up some people should simply not read epic fantasy. Especially YA-fantasy readers used to wham-bam, flimsy worldbuilding where the author uses Ye Olde Medieval Europe as a model.
If detailed world building and a slow-burn story with political intrigue and rich character development challenge your patience, this is NOT the book for you.
You will be bored shitless. Best give it a miss.
The City of Brass is written from the POV of two characters: Nahri, a young conwoman eking out an existence in Cairo’s backstreets, and Ali, a djinn prince, second in line to the throne, living in the magical city of Daevabad.
Although Nahri has some healing skills, she fakes magic most of the time and cons her customers into believing her rituals are real. Until the night she’s chased by ghouls and summons a mysterious djinn warrior, Dara, to her side. She’s suddenly forced to accept that magic is indeed real, and that she is bound to it in ways she never would have expected.
Dara 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.
The world of the Daevabad Trilogy, map from SA Chakraborty’s site.
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.
Nahri and Ali are the POV characters and the book is written in third person. Both Nahri and Ali’s arcs are satisfying, for very different reasons.
Nahri and Ali from @MyFoundationLyf via SA Chakarborty’s website.
First, neither of them are subject to the usual coming-of-age tales. Chakraborty has subverted this, giving each of the characters much greater agency in their fates, and succeeds in making both Nahri and Ali leap off the page as fully-formed people.
Nahri learns she has powers and is the half-blood child of a powerful djinn family. When she arrives in Daevabad she’s welcomed into the palace and (begrudgingly) accepted by King Ghassan.
She seems to have her life mapped out: she’ll learn healing skills and marry the heir to the throne, Ali’s brother, Muntadhir.
But she’s neither impressed by her own cultural heritage nor can she learn to wield magic as easily as she should. In fact, she’s not that interested.
I won’t spoil too much, but by the end of the book, Nahri is given one massive lemon and she decides to make lemonade.
We don’t get a glass of lemonade until the following book, of course.
Likewise Ali, who’s an all-round good guy, is undertaking a military career whilst trying to save the world/poor/underclasses in his spare time.
He eventually has to give up his quest to the Shafit (half-djinn, half-humans) in the city and get a better deal for them in favour of family loyalty. He does so-turning his back on the Shafit, but you always know in the back of your mind that his choice isn’t willing.
There’s also non-POV Dara, the too-powerful djinn, whose memories of the atrocities he did in a former life haunt him. When you think you’re going to get a love triangle between Nahri, Dara and Ali, Chakraborty again subverts your expectations.
Dara by Alexis Castellanos via SA Chakraborty’s site.
As well, each of the minor characters, Ali’s brother Muntadhir, their father, Ghassan, Nahri’s frenemy mentor, Nisreen, and Jamshid (Muntadhir’s best friend and would-be lover), all have distinctive voices and motives.
Life is messy. The City of Brass does messy on its characters so damned well.
You will feel ALL the feels.
An Anthropologist’s Thoughts
The culture in The City of Brass feels deep and convincing. We have tribes of djinn with their own language, religions, customs from different parts of Africa, the Middle East, Asia and India. People not only look different, based upon where they’ve originated, they act differently.
Chakraborty conveys all this effortlessly; you won’t find three pages of heavy-handed description of a tower just to prove it’s onion-domed and tiled or fair-skinned people shoved into deserts with apostrophes and a clan system well beyond the author’s skills to unpack.
The City of Brass immerses in a believable world, juxtaposing the familiar and the unfamiliar: eighteenth century Cairo and timeless, magical Daevabad.
Cultural conflict is an enduring theme in the book. Each djinn tribe has histories, ambitions and bigotries. Individuals such as Ali, Ghassan, Dara and Nahri play out their cultural differences well. Chakraborty has done an excellent job of making each culture distinct and not entirely happy with its neighbours.
Of course, pre-Islamic Persian culture is the inspiration for Daevabad itself and the tension between Islam and the djinn tribes is another constant theme in the book. Ali’s adherence to Islam and its laws feels very deep and real, as does his brother’s and father’s adherence to their religion.
All in all, as an anthropologist looking for a sense of ethnography and culture, I’ll give Shannon Chakraborty 8/10 for writing convincing, deep culture.
Lessons for Writers
I’m going to choose complex characters here.
The City of Brass is a study in nuanced characters and tropes. Instead of having Nahri just slide into her powers in a magical, hidden city, she pines for Cairo’s streets, smells and food. Instead of falling in love with the charming but dangerous Dara or sweet guy Ali, she dabbles both ways and accepts an arranged marriage.
Read this book to see what you can do with characters who subvert tropes and to understand how to deal with culture shock and fitting in…or not quite fitting in and having the guts to admit it.
And yes, I’m reading on.
About the author:
Shannon/S. A. Chakraborty is a NY-based speculative fiction writer and history buff. The City of Brass is her debut novel and was short-listed for the Locus, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy Awards. Shannon lives in Queens with her husband, daughter and cats. She’s currently working on a new series based around medieval pirates in the Indian Ocean.
Shannon’s website is here.
Also, Travis from the Fantasy Inn Podcast does a BRILLIANT interview with Shannon Chakraborty in Episode 37 here.
*This post contains affiliate links. If you buy a book, I’ll make a few cents.