“He was an easy mark.”First line in The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty
Author: S. A. Chakraborty
Published: November 14, 2017
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Series: The Daevabad Trilogy #1
Buzzwords: Middle Eastern fantasy, djinn, political fantasy
Synopsis: 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…
The City of Brass is the first book in a fantasy trilogy centered around djinn and their magical city Daevabad. It’s a book that mixes magic, Middle Eastern folklore and complex politics to create a highly addicting story that, even though I didn’t love everything, was very hard for me to put down.
It starts out very strong with the introduction of the main character, Nahri, who is making her living as a con artist on the streets of 18th century Cairo. I immediately took a liking to her because she’s the kind of badass woman who doesn’t need to constantly tell the reader she’s badass. She will simply show you, and while doing that, she also reveals how deeply flawed her character is. She’s not perfect but there’s a likeability to her anyway, and I believe her character development across three books is going to be epic.
The other perspective we get is Ali who is a prince in this mythical city of Daevabad, and he is our introduction to the complex politics going on in the city, and the politics was probably my favorite part of the book. It is far from simple with a lot of history and old traditions involved, making sure no decision is straight-forward. And that’s a general theme of the book. It’s not easy to pinpoint who the good guys and bad guys are because everyone is a bit of both. Quite a few characters have questionable morals but they also all have some redeeming qualities, and it just makes everything in here so incredibly interesting.
And now I can’t believe I’ve made it this far in the review without mentioning the world-building because it is everywhere. There is so much to this world Chakraborty has created that I after a 600 pages long book feel that I’ve only gotten a tiny sneak peek at it. There are different magical abilities, a bunch of fantastical creatures that could kill you (so glad I don’t live there) and on top of that, you have the political and historical dynamics between the six djinn tribes. It’s a lot and it’s amazing if you’re into extensive world-building.
The thing that prevented this book being a full 5 star read for me was the way that it didn’t feel all that historical. It has a great start on that front but quickly moves away from it, making it seem like this story could have taken place in 2021. It’s especially evident in the way that certain characters speak and interact that made me unable to picture this taking place in the 18th century. It wasn’t a huge problem for me because I loved so many other things about the book, but if you really want that historical feeling from your Historical Fantasy books, I imagine this might be a disappoint.
I still highly recommend this book if you’re into political Fantasy stories, and rich world-building is your jam. It is very well written, and I can’t wait to continue the series! Now I’m going to jump into a spoiler section so here is your official SPOILER WARNING for the rest of the post.
I’m going to start with Nahri who I immediately took a liking to. I actually very rarely like female protagonists, so when I do, it’s always a good sign for the rest of the book. I think the most interesting thing about her in the beginning was her very nonchalant attitude to her own abilities of healing AND understanding every language. And how cool is that? Like, screw healing, where do I sign up for that language ability? I need it!
However, I think my feelings about her turned more neutral as we went along for a few reasons. She is involved in some kind of romance with Dara, and I’ll say that I don’t hate it per se, but I also don’t think it adds any value to the story or Nahri’s character. Had it not been there, I wouldn’t have missed it.
There is also a specific scene I want to talk about because I didn’t like it. It’s when Nahri and Dara have almost reached Daevabad but then they’re rescued from some creature (I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten half the names from this book already) by Khayzur who sacrifices himself. Nahri has a very emotional reaction to this and Dara has to carry her away, and I really don’t think that reaction fit what we knew about her character at that point. She had been described as this person who have had to make tough decisions to fend for herself, and she literally tricks people for a living. There’s clearly a self-centeredness to her, but you expect me to believe she had such a violent reaction to the death of someone she has talked to for five minutes? And even believed to have betrayed her? So yeah, being sad that someone dies? Sure. But that seemed a bit excessive. And I know I’m nitpicking but it really bothered me.
Then once she reached Daevabad, she became almost the embodiment of the reader’s ignorance about everything, so her perspectives were filled with a lot of information as she learns alongside the reader. Which is fine, but it didn’t develop her character all that much.
Moving on to Ali whose chapters started out very confusing because he was our introduction to the political situation in Daevabad. Figuring out who was allied with whom and who to be suspicious of was very difficult, but I think that is why it is so good. You don’t just have “the downtrodden” and “the rich rulers” that would have made it easier for the reader to know who to sympathize with. It’s way more muddied with both daevas and shafits having problems but also fighting each other (mainly) because of stuff that happened in the past. And then we have prince Ali whose family is more sympathetic towards the daevas, but Ali is trying to help the shafit. Oh how I love politics in books!
Chakraborty really threw a curveball with Ali by making him a marid or whatever the hell that was. Totally wasn’t something I picked up on until Chakraborty became more obvious about his connection to water.
“She braced herself against the wall, flinching when it turned damp beneath her hands. In front of her, she heard Ali take a deep breath of the humid air. As the stairs grew slippery with moisture, she would swear his steps looked surer.”
How many times can you say he needs water without actually saying it? 😂
Overall, I really did like Ali as a character. His perspective posed some interesting moral questions about how “doing the right thing” isn’t always the uncomplicated solution it’s sometimes made out to be.
I should probably say something about Dara too, but I don’t have much. I’m undecided whether I like him or not, and I didn’t feel all that much when he died. It might be because I know he’s coming back somehow. Not only because the version I read had an excerpt from Empire of Gold in it, which told me he has POV chapters in there, but also because you don’t kill a character like that off in book one.
Finally, I need to comment on the whole Muntadhir and Jamshid thing because that was interesting. I appreciated the many subtle hints at a possible relationship between them throughout the whole book, and the way it shows Muntadhir in a different light compared to how we see him through Ali’s eyes. The whole womanizing act just doesn’t mean the same anymore. We didn’t get a whole lot of them in this book, so I’m excited to learn more. And now, I know that I said in the spoiler-free part that there are no true “good guys” in here, but that was a lie because there is Jamshid. He is the purest cinnamonroll, and believe me, I was ready to riot when he was injured AND NO ONE WAS HELPING HIM!!!
Then the epilogue came… and I realized I had been thoroughly tricked. Jamshid being a Nahid was the perfect plot twist to end the book on. Here I was thinking he was a minor character, primarily relevant because of his relation to Muntadhir, but he was my favorite character anyway so I’m very excited if this means he gets to play a bigger role in the next books. And I have so many questions now!
I think I’ve rambled enough for now, although I’m sure there’s something I’ve forgotten. So please talk to me in the comments if you’ve read this, whether you agree or disagree with my assessments. It won’t be long before I read the sequel, that’s for sure.