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I’m trying to get into the habit of writing shorter reviews again, so without further ado, here’s my thoughts on S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass (2017).
There’s not a ton of fantasy novels inspired by the folklore and mythology of the Middle East; Chakraborty’s novel joins such books as G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, and Renée Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn. It’s better than all but Wilson’s: so well-written that I struggled to remember that it was a first novel, The City of Brass follows orphan Nahri from late 18thC Cairo to the titular city of the djinn, Daevabad, where she attempts to claim her family birthright of healing magic against a backdrop of political strife and ancient feuds. Her companion is Dara, well-known mass murderer and a “slave,” a djinn cursed to do the bidding of humans. In Daevabad she meets many people including Prince Alizayd, the upright and confused second son of the king, whose political allegiances remain in question, though he won’t acknowledge it.
I liked Nahri a lot; a former thief and sometime con artist, she is clever and pragmatic and makes choices that are easily understandable, and refuses to let people like Dara overpower her own ideas and dreams about how her life will go. One of the book’s main problems, however, is that Nahri doesn’t reach Daevabad until page 200 (out of 500), meaning most of the most interesting developments take place very late in the book. While Nahri is on her journey, Prince Ali takes up the burden of the POV character, and he’s…insufferable. Once Nahri does meet him, it becomes quite clear that he had to be the viewpoint character because everyone else would rightly have called him a self-righteous fanatic, and by the end it’s clear that Ali knows the least about what is going on in Daevabad of just about any of the characters. None of that made me like him any better; despite his sympathy for the low status of the mixed-blood shafit, he wants to outlaw fun, and that’s not a cause I can get behind.
There’s a lot going on in Daevabad; ancient feuds mix with contemporary family and political drama, though by the end of the book I felt that I could probably predict pretty well the major beats of how the story of Nahri’s finding out what happened to her murdered clan, the Nahids, who once ruled the city but were overthrown by Ali’s ancestors for being extremely evil. The moral ambiguity of everyone’s ancestral backstory felt very consciously plotted out, but it did serve to defray any simple allegorical reading along the Racism Is Bad lines, which I appreciated.
All that said, I also disliked the emotional dynamic between Nahri and Dara, which reminded me of The Wrath and the Dawn, and not in a good way. Just because he’s hot doesn’t make him being a mass murderer okay. And frankly, Dara’s extreme prejudice against the shafit and faith that he should tell Nahri what to do without telling her anything are also tedious.
Though I don’t feel any particular compulsion to seek out the sequels, I do suspect that Chakraborty has the potential to write some darn good books down the line. In the meantime, once you’ve read Alif the Unseen and you’re jonesing for more of the same, you could do much worse than seek out The City of Brass.