A Critique of ‘Empire of Gold’ and ‘The Daevabad Trilogy’ by S. A Chakraborty

Goodreads

I just finished book 3 of the Daevabad trilogy, so this review will be covering the whole trilogy, but with a particular focus on book 3.

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing and editing skills.


WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE? WHAT GENRES? WHAT MAJOR TROPES?

  • Persian Fantasy
  • Arab/Middle East/Egyptian Fantasy
    • Djinn characters
  • Kickass Female Portagonist
  • Religious Fantasy
  • Political Fantasy
  • Romance, but it’s light
  • Adult, but anyone 15+ would enjoy this
    • If memory serves, there are a few explicit scenes.
  • Matchlock Fantasy
    • Matchlock is the intermediate step between Medieval Fantasy and Flintlock.
    • Medieval discusses classic tropes of kings and nobles in a post-Roman/Early Byzantine/’Dark Ages’ Europe setting.
      • I’d describe ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ as Medieval. Ya know, classic fantasy.
    • Flintlock is vaguely inspired by a Napoleonic setting/technology, sometimes focusing on colonialism as a theme.
      • I’d describe ‘Powder Mage’ and ‘The Shadow Campaigns’ and ‘Temeraire’ as Flintlock.
    • Matchlock is anything Ottoman/Safavid/Mugal/Late Byzantine/Spanish Reconquista and Inquisition/European Wars of Religion era inspired. A theme in this would probably be clashing religions.
      • I’d describe ‘Gunmetal Gods,’ the ‘World of the Five Gods’ and ‘The Lions of al-Rassan’ as Matchlock. You don’t need to have guns to be Matchlock, in my opinion.

IF YOU ARE IN THE TARGET AUDIENCE, OR THE GENRES/TROPES SOUND INTERESTING TO YOU, SHOULD YOU READ THIS?

Yes


MY EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR

I liked books 1 and 3 in this series a good deal, sometimes to the point of loving them. Book 2 was fine, but it suffered a little from ‘middle book syndrome.’ Personally, I liked this series when it incorperates contrasting human and shafit and djinn cultures; book 2 didn’t feature this cultural conflict nearly as much as books 1 and 3. That said, at the time I did enjoy reading book 2 for it’s plot, more than the other two books. Net total, I like them all about equally- books 1 and 3 for the worldbuilding, book 2 for the plot.

Finally, I really like Nahri as a protagonist. She goes through a wonderful character arc in each book.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (4/5 Stars)

Note: I default to giving 3 stars to good books. 3 stars for me is probably closer to 4 stars for someone else.


BIASES STATED

To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.

I like political fantasy novels, where schemers scheme and innocent people suffer. I like non-European fantasy. I like books with heavy religious themes. I am in this book’s target audience, meaning I am inclined to enjoy it automatically.


SIMILAR BOOKS


CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

This series’ concept is ‘A magical civil war is brewing between ethnic factions of djinn amongst the empire of djinn, Daevabad. In the past the Persian djinn ruled the kingdom, but with the coming of Islam, the Arab djinn conquored the empire. Now the oppressed Persians aspire to regain the throne, but they lack a royal family to rally behind. The half-human, half-djinn Nahri is the sole surviving member of that fallen royal family, but she lives on the streets of Cairo using her djinn magic to scam people. When she’s discovered by the warring factions of Daevabad, she drawn into their schemes, and is held captive by the Arab faction even though she’s Persian. She falls in love with the son of the Arab Khalif, only to have their love tested when the civil war is kicked into high-gear.’

I thought this concept was well executed upon, largely because this book seeks to explore multiple axis of djinn culture. You have multiple angles of oppression in this series: full-blood djinn versus half-blood shafit; Arab Islamic djinn versus Persian Zoroastrian djinn; those magically strong and those born with poor magic; the oppression of the Seal of Solomon upon djinn magic; against ‘good’ djinn and ‘evil’ ifrit.

Time and again, Nahri is on the losing side of each of these struggles, either by choice or by birth. This was a great storytelling strategy by the author, because it helps the reader build empathy for the weaker/losing side. When the war finally breaks out and mass murder start happening, I was left feeling empathy for both sides. This was skillful work by the author.

I think books 1 and 3 are the strongest, but 2 is by no means a slouch. 1 felt the roughest, storytelling chops-wise. But as the author matured, the quality steadily improved. Overall I thought 3 was very well done, barring one or two minor nitpicks.

Note: I had one disappointment. Going into this series, I was excited to read an Alternate History Egypt story. This really isn’t that. 75+% of this series takes place in an imaginary magical djinn kingdom in Persia, where human history doesn’t matter. If you want a fantasy retelling of the past, this isn’t that at all. No shade, though! This book is plenty good on it’s own, it’s just not Alt History.


CHARACTERS, CHARACTERIZATION AND DIALOG

As stated, Nahri is a strong protagonist. I think in terms of character growth over a series, she is one of the best protagonists I’ve read. In book 1, she begins as a scheming Egyptian con-artist who gradually transitions into a princess who takes her responsibilities seriously; in book 2; she transforms from that responsible princess into a healer defined by her empathy, even for her enemy; in book 3, she transforms yet again, from being an empathic healer, to being a leader of her people and a worthy queen. That’s quite a change, from a con artist to queen- but that change felt earned by the narrative.

And then we have Prince Ali. He’s a warrior scholar- right up my alley in terms of tropes. The man in book 1 is the same as the man in book 3, unlike Nahri who grew and changed. I wanted him to question his confidence in the righteousness of his family’s rule, about God, about his preconceptions about shafit and humans. Ali was a man of faith; and faith is only as interesting as doubt. Ali’s characterization thrived when he was forced to doubt.

I like Ali as a person, I like reading about him, but he had one major ‘problem’ with his character arc: he never had a crisis of faith in God. This book is a very religious book, where all the characters are people who earnestly hold to their faiths. Unfortunately, the narrative never interrogated the very meta-narrative existing in the sub-stratum of it’s worldbuilding: God and religion itself. I felt that someone needed to lose faith in God/the Creator at some point, just so the narrative could better explore this aspect of the story’s themes. Ali was poised for such an atheist turn. Ali’s atheist turn could have been very brief, but I feel it was necessary. Ali could be tested in his faith, lose his faith, and then regained and become stronger for it in the end. This felt like a promise the narrative made, but never kept.

I can see that in the abstract, Dara’s story was potentially the most compelling character arc in the entire series: he’s a djinn who’s escaped djinn-slavery, by the grace of Nahri, so he offers loyalty to Nahri’s family. Nahri’s mother, Banu Moniza, betrays that loyalty and enslaves him again. That’s a good, clean arc; a circle ending back where it began. That’s compelling, thematic work.

Unfortunately, I feel Dara’s story didn’t quite pay off in book 3. Throughout most of this book, Dara kept trying to redeem Moniza, only for her to time and again refuse to be redeemed. I kept thinking, “Moniza poisoned several thousand people in the last book. She’s literally consorting with the demons who enslaved Dara. This book is obviously setting her up to be the main Big Bad. Why does Dara trust her?” And when Banu Moniza inevitably betrayed Dara, I was left feeling ‘meh’ because of how obvious the betrayal was.

I think the problem I had was that this book was too long, with Dara’s perspective having too many chapters. Because Dara had so much limelight, it gave me (as the reader) the chance to poke holes in his motivations again and again, wondering why he trusts Moniza, ruining my suspension of disbelief. If he was on-screen less, there would be fewer opportunities for the reader to poke holes in his motivation. In the end, it just didn’t work.

Dara was well-written, and his scenes contributed to the quality of the story in a major way, but ultimately he didn’t *click* with me.

And finally, Moniza. I loved her. I have to say I have a weakness for Evil Queen Big Bads. She was a ‘hungry’ character, possessing a gnawing hole in her psyche which can never be filled. She’s willing to sacrifice anything and anyone- including her own children whom she loves- to achieve greatness. Again, I’m partial for Evil Queen Big Bads; I was always going to like her.

Now that said, I wanted more from Moniza. I think she could have taken a more active role in book 1, instead of turning up in book 2. It would have been fun to have her scheming in the sultan’s harem instead of presumed dead the entire time. I like Evil Queens; I wanted her to be even more unrepentantly evil.


PACING AND STRUCTURE

Book 3 suffered from feeling really long. The pacing never felt bogged down or slow, which is good. However, I listened to the audiobook and the audiobook was 28 hours long. At that length, reading this was a commitment, and I’m not quite sure that commitment paid off. I feel this could have been trimmed down to a tight 23 hours, and I would have adored it. (This is the same reason why I’ve given up on the Stormlight Archive and Wheel of Time; they’re just too long.)

I feel like this book used the 3 Act format

Act 1

  • Nahri and Ali travel together to Egypt. They go to Cairo. In Cairo, they have the chance to start over, live lives as ordinary humans. For the sake of the people of Daevabad, they turn down that opportunity.
  • Dara tries to make peace in Daevabad, even as the city goes down into a civil war/lockdown. Dara convinces Moniza to make friends with their enemy. Dara makes friends with Mutadir.

Act 2

  • Nahri and Ali travel down the Nile to Ethiopia, to join Ali’s mother’s family in Ta Nitri. They travel with the river Marid, Sobek. PLOT HAPPENS.
  • Dara, Moniza and Mutadir hold a party, trying to end the civil war with peace. The peace doesn’t last.

Act 3

  • Nahri performs surgery on Ali, saving his life. They then go their separate ways.
  • Ali travels out into the ocean, and SPOILERS.
  • Nahri, using the Seal of Solomon, returns to Daevabad, and more or less names herself as the new queen, much to her mother Moniza’s chagrin.
  • Dara, having failed to find peace, is forced by blood magic to become Moniza’s attack dog.

This structure worked. I feel like a few plot points related to Dara and the Marids could have been cut for the sake of time/pagecount, but overall I feel like it worked.


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

My favorite part of book 3- and the entire series- was when Nahri and Ali return to Cairo. Nahri is at her most interesting when she is forced to live in the actually human world. This book takes place during the reign of the Ottomans (I think during Napoleon’s misadventures in Egypt), but you’d hardly know it. This book is so supernatural focused that the Alternate History aspect of this series is barely a thing. Having the characters return to Cairo and just live for a few chapters provided depth and breadth to the setting, letting it breathe.

Ali’s plot with embracing his watery aspect was interesting, and foreshadowed in prior books. Something about it didn’t quite click for me, but I can say that objectively it worked.

Dara and Moniza’s schemes to regain the throne felt indecisive. Go to my above section on Dara’s characterization to explain why.

Nahri’s character arc was well done; I particularly liked how it merged in with the shafit plotline from earlier novels, leading to the resolution of the series as a whole.

The book’s stakes and tension largely worked, but they could have been better. In Act 1, when the heroes were in Cairo, there was no threat of the bad guys attacking Nahri and Ali. I feel as though they should have been attacked in Cairo, so Nahri would feel compelled to protect BOTH the people of Daevabad as well as the people of Cairo.

And finally, the denouement! It exists! It was good! I was very happy! I have to say that too often authors just finish a book (or worse, a series) and just end without sufficient falling action. This book had 4 or 5 chapters after the final battle, and it was glorious. I got a good sense of closure with the characters and setting.

Spoilers for the ending below!

I enjoyed the fact that Nahri decided not to become queen in the end. It seemed very in-character for her. The reconciliation with her grandfather was heartwarming.


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

The book’s tone was Grimdark adjacent. It didn’t dwell in the slums of nihilism that a lot of Grimdark Fantasy devolves down into, but it did discuss serious topics like kidnapping, slavery and race-based classism. This book’s tone asked to be taken seriously, but didn’t slap you in the face with gore or body horror or anything like that.

The prose style is largely quite beautiful, depicting gorgeous settings. If I were to complain, at times I felt a little jarred by some anachronistic-seeming dialog. This story takes place during the Ottoman Era/Napoleonic Era/Victorian Era, but the characters largely speak like people do today. They don’t use modern slang or anything like that, but nonetheless the dialog doesn’t remind me of dialog from other alternate history genre books. This is a small complaint, but a meaningful one.


SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

I heartily enjoy this series’ worldbuilding. Djinn are creatures born of smokeless fire, so they naturally live in a kingdom of fire magic, illusions and enchantments. Theirs is a beautiful and alluring culture. Even the ‘evil’ ifrit djinn possess a cryptic majesty about themselves. Surrounding them are aquatic marids, and airborn peri, and other likewise supernatural creatures of yore. This series in particular feels like a Persian Fantasy novel, with Simurgh, Lammasu and other mythological creatures. I enjoyed the fact that for Ali in particular, the Islamic aspect of the setting seemed to live and breathe. I give the setting 9 out of 10 stars, if that matters.

If I have a small complaint about this part of the setting, it’s that this setting had 6 factions of djinn (7 if you count the ifrit), but only 3 (4 if you count ifrit) played a major role in the story. I wanted to learn more about the missing 3 factions. It felt a bit weird that we went through a full series without learning anything about them; after reading book 1 I thought that by book 3 we’d know about all the djinn factions, but that didn’t happen.

The dominant religion in Daevabad is Islam- the main practitioner of which is Ali. Nahri practices another faith. Many hints point to Nahri’s religion being an off-brand Zoroastrianism, re-interpreted to be djinn-centric. In the real world, when Islam conquered Persia, the native Persian religion of Zoroastrianism was oppressed. This book takes place in the historically geographic heartland of Persia; it makes sense to include Zoroastrianism.

I personally respect the author for bringing this dynamic of a real world religion and real world history into the story, especially one which is undertold and oppressed. Zoroastrianism is literally the oldest continually practiced religion on earth (perhaps tied with Hinduism), so I value that an author went out of their way to bring it into their story. It is important to portray the victims of history in a positive light- doubly so when the tenets of Zoroastrianism are amongst the most theologically influential ever to this day.

Now, at first I was worried that the minority religion would be portrayed only in a negative light, because the villains were also part of this religion. However, by the end it became clear that the heroes (Nahri and Dara in particular) views their faith as a source of strength, inspiring them to heal and protect. I liked this religious dynamism, because in too many Fantasy books religions are viewed as being deceitful or false or wrong in some way.

I do have a complaint about this aspect. I wish the narrative actually named them as being Zoroastrians, and described their religion as such. Introducing a real-world minority to your book can only do good if you actually add them to the book. The fact that the minority faith is ‘off brand,’ while Islam itself is ‘on brand,’ hurts the message somewhat.

One other quibble. I wanted an interfaith dialog subtheme in this text, between the different religious factions. I wanted the characters to actually do the hard work of reconciling with one another, and coming to understand one another. I wanted some comparative theology in this book which contains multiple rival religions being forced to cooperate. It felt like a promise the worldbuilding made which was never paid off on.

These are a small quibbles. Again overall, I give this series’ worldbuilding 9/10 stars.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES

The audiobook for all three books are good.


LESSONS LEARNED

As an author, I want to improve my own writing/editing skills. To that end, I like to learn lessons from every story I read. Here’s what I learned from this story:

  • Less is more. If a POV character has a problem at the heart of their perspective, a problem so great as to cause suspension-of-disbelief-failures in your reader, it might be wise to include fewer chapters from their perspective instead of more.
  • Evil Queen Big Bads are fun! Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned!
  • Be on the look out for promises you’ve perhaps unintentionally made to the reader, and try to fulfill those promises.
    • In this case, this series is deeply about religious conflict, zealotry, piety and faith. Religion was written deeply into this series’ worldbuilding DNA.
    • Due to the promises made by the worldbuilding DNA, I wanted comparative theology and interfaith dialogs. I wanted a discussion on the nature of God, and what it means to lose faith. Those themes never happened.

Here’s a link to all the lessons I’ve previously learned.


SUMMARY

This is an excellent series. I enjoyed virtually every minute of it. It’s weaknesses are few, and it’s strengths many. Check out the first book, and if you find book 1 compelling, know that both sequels are even better than the first book.


Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:

The Rest of My In Depth Reviews

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