City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty
Posted April 2, 2019
I bought this book last month on a whim. I had no idea that it was about to become the Goodreads Book of the Month for /r/fantasy, but I suppose that simply makes it a bit more apropos to be posting this now.
No one told me to pick this up. I simply saw it a few times whilst browsing, was intrigued by the cover, and then read the synopsis. When I was on vacation, I burned through the more digestible books I had brought (I still need to finish the Ramayana and Don Quixote :-/) and was looking for something new. Amazon suggested City of Brass.
God love those algorithms.
I am not one to shy away from gushing about books that get their hooks into me and don't let go. I made it more than half-way through the novel on my way home from my trip down to southern climes (I am in one of the frozen-ass provinces that make up Canada). Although personal commitments meant that I had to significantly slow my roll, I am quite happy that this happened, as it meant that the experience lasted longer.
Full disclosure: my favourite Disney movie growing up was Alladin. The whole 1001 Arabian Nights and Middle Eastern mythology generally has had a tight grip on me. Quest for Glory 2, a computer game set in a fantastical Persian middle ages type setting, was a game that I played over and over in my youth, so drawn by the setting was I. It is no surprise to me that my debut novel features a large portion of the plot set in such a (ficitional realm). I was primed for the Islamic / Middle Eastern mythology in this book in a very significant way.
In City of Brass, that setting is first (for a very brief period) in early 18th century Cairo, followed by the titular city with quite a bit of brass, Daevabad. While that time-period cross-section of Cairo is one that is extremely underrepresented in popular culture, Daevabad is something else entirely. It is a city where genies live, to put it simply. But they are not simply lamp-dwelling wish-granters (though some are - and it is a brutal existence with a horrific explanation). There is much more to the story of the daevas, as some of the racially pure prefer to call themselves, or the djinn, as the more inclusive magical beings maintain, and the shafit, the djinn of mixed human and djinn blood.
This provides one of the central political intrigues to the entire story. And the story is very much about politics, chief among them how the ruler of the city might keep the peace among the tribes of djinn, each of whom have their own prejudices and beliefs.
But, perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. This is principally the story of Nahri, a seemingly human grifter with some strange abilities that permit her to survive as a single woman in a world that was without a doubt a harsh patriarchy. Playing the role of psychic to desperate people that she sees as rubes of whom she might take pecuniary advantage, Nahri gets into some hot water when one of her fake incantations actually brings a djinn into her life.
I do not want to spoil the story, but Nahri is soon introduced to a magic carpet, demonic ifrit, dangers without compare - before she even steps foot in Daevabad. When she does finally get inside the gates, she must contend with even more danger - and a supposed heritage of which she knew nothing.
The other main storyline belongs to Ali, the second son of the King of Daevabad. Ali was born a 'pureblood' and expected to have the same conceits of his relatives, but he sees the injustices which must be endured by the shafit as something intolerable. But he is not all sunshine and roses, as he has prejudices of his own against another tribe with which he must wrestle. Ali is a man of black and white morals in a world of shades of grey.
Chakraborty definitely has that tremendous gift for narrative that never sees the plot stagnate. She understands the value of pacing, keeping a breakneck pace throughout most of the book. She introduces some bits of respite where necessary, but does not shy away from reigniting the wick before the restful bits begin to drag.
There is much more to the story than I prefer to speak about here, but the ending to the book just picks up like nothing else. The finale is jaw-dropping in the way that the Red Wedding in A Song of Ice and Fire drops your jaw. I knew shit was going to get real, but I was not prepared for how real.
Seriously, grab a copy of the book. It is a wonderful novel. If I didn't have other reading commitments, I would be devouring Kingdom of Copper (the sequel) right now.