Mount Readmore Book Review, 2018 108/200
The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty
Finished on 6/28/2018
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…
Genres: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Arabic Fantasy, Political Fantasy
A Solid First Book in a Promising Series
Daevabad is a brass-gilded city of djinni, filled with magic and religious incivility. But Nahri doesn’t know that. She’s just a kid from Cairo who struggles to make a buck scamming Ottomans and Franks using her ‘magic’ gifts to cure people. Except she really does have have the magical gift to heal people. When she’s discovered by valourous daevas and incidious ifriti she’s forced to go on the run to her newfound homeland of Daevabad.
Nahri is a lost princess of the old Daevabad royal dynasty, her family dynasty having been replaced by a new dynasty. When she returns she’s taken captive by the new dynasty- and promptly forced into an engagement with the new dynasty crown prince by the king of djinni because the king wants to stabilize the loyalists of the old dynasty with those who follows his leadership. However Nahri is infatuated with the crown prince’s younger brother, throwing the royal family into jealous chaos.
The story only gets more complex from there, with several other factions vying for power. There’s a half-human/half-djinn partblood conspiracy to overthrow the oppressing pureblood djinn world order and give partbloods rights. There’s an evil ifriti conspiracy which is in rebellion not only against Daevabad’s government, but also God’s will. And there’s a cabal of old dynasty loyalists who revere Nahri as a divine figure and want to steal her. All of the factions want to possess Nahri and use her rare magic and special lineage to grant validity to their causes.
The plot was the strongest part of this book. It was intricate and politics heavy, but not to the point of being baffling kubuki theater.
The characters were interesting, including both protagonists Nahri and Ali. Ali is an aspiring holy man and the secondary prince who will never inherit the throne. I particularly liked how he was constantly confronted with conflicting loyalties to his royal family and to the half-humans he feels honorbound to protect from the cruel law.
Okay, time for some constructive criticism.
The characters could have been stronger. Neither Nahri nor Ali takes enough control of their own lives to say that they had full agency. Both were sort of blown along on the wind, only occasionally influencing the plot with their actions. Don’t get me wrong, they did influence the plot some, but I wanted more.
Similarly Ali never really exhibited enough character development given the amount of trauma he was forced through. I wanted him (and Nahri, but to a lesser extent) to emotionally grow and change given the very exciting events of the plot, but they never did.
The pacing was slow. Nahri’s sections in particular dragged out with a lot of world building exposition. I think this book could have been 10-15% shorter if the author buckled down and trimmed. If she did that, I think the story would have been better.
Finally, about the worldbuilding. I was a little confused for the first 100 pages or so as I was trying to figure out the difference between a djinn and a daeva and an ifriti and a marid and a Nahid and a peri. I liked the worldbuilding and setting after it was introduced and clarified, but I was a bit confused up until it was clarified. The author did a bad job of introducing it.
Highly recommended if you like political fantasy books, or just Recommended if you want to read a good fantasy book. This is a quintessential first book in a series and doesn’t really stand up on it’s own. If you’re of the sort who likes to wait to read a series until after the final book is published, then wait because this is in no way a standalone.