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The City of Brass


The City of Brass

Intricate fantasy, frenetic romance, political intrigue, bloodthirsty violence. If you’re a fan of a story steeped in all four, you need to pick up this book. S. A. Chakraborty’s debut, THE CITY OF BRASS, kicks off an upcoming trilogy. There are parts of the work that stumble with certain common first-novel hitches, but overall, she brings to life a thrilling, page-turning adventure.

Eighteenth-century Cairo. Nahri is a young swindler with no known family and powers she doesn’t understand. She ekes out a living as a small-time con woman, healing small injuries and tricking the foolish. Except there’s something else to her talents --- something far more potent than she’d realized. The discovery introduces her to a mysterious djinn warrior, Dara, who recognizes the truth of her powers and identity. Together they journey to Daevabad, the city of brass, alit with djinn, turmoil and magic. The city opens up exciting possibilities for Nahri, but also unimaginable danger. Nahri and Dara cross paths with Prince Alizayd al Qahtani, the younger son of the Daevabad king, and the king has his own complicated plans for both of them, based on a centuries-old divide. While Nahri struggles to understand her place in this new world --- which is as dangerous as it is enchanting --- Alizayd must navigate his place within the deadly divide between the pure-blooded Daeva (djinn) and mixed-blooded.

"Overall, this is a masterful debut.... [Chakraborty’s] writing is excellent, lush and detailed. She illuminates sights, sounds and smells, and intricacies of magic, while also packing in page-turning action."

The recap alone leaves me a bit breathless, and I’m leaving out quite a few details. Another reviewer has called this book syncretic, and it is that --- there’s a lot going on here, and it borrows inspiration from a bevy of places. She herself identified that the book began as something of “historical fanfiction.” Chakraborty is a history enthusiast with a scholar’s background as well as a convert to Islam, and it’s clear that she is deeply personally invested in the intricacies and intersections of Middle Eastern history, faith and folklore. As a reader, I adore epic fantasy and generally hold the belief that if the story can grip you and speak to you, can broaden your horizons and immerse you in a world you enjoy, you can do the work of learning its history. For me, this book did all four, and the task of following along was highly rewarding.

Still, for readers who aren’t necessarily accustomed to higher fantasy, there are parts of THE CITY OF BRASS that might overwhelm or blur together. Chakraborty has created such an immense world, with a painful, complex history that the characters are constantly learning more about, and sometimes it can be hard to keep track. However, the author’s enthusiasm is palpable and predominantly contagious. If readers get a bit lost, they can catch on again easily. Epic fantasy fans do it for Tolkien and George R. R. Martin. Ultimately, her sparkling, shifting plot propels the reader through the narrative.

As impressively immersive as this novel is, there were moments that stumbled and anachronistic language that distracted. I personally don’t often enjoy the “chosen one” narrative, as it doesn’t give me much to lean on to relate to the characters. There were times when, while I could still feel Chakraborty’s love and affection for her characters, I just didn’t connect on quite that level, even though I wished I could. I wanted more friendships developing. I wanted more to the romance, to feel it build and grow instead of showing up rather suddenly and predictably, though perhaps that just wasn’t my particular cup of tea. And I couldn’t help but notice moments in this 500+ page book --- which spans centuries and faiths and magical races --- that overtly danced around queerness, but never took the step to explore it even a little, which felt a bit disappointing. 

That said, THE CITY OF BRASS is a debut and book one of a trilogy. And as a non-Muslim, I’m sure there are parts of the novel that may resonate more with other readers, and that’s not only entirely fine, but pretty great. I’m glad this book exists. What Chakraborty gives us is truly beautiful. And it’s complex because the real-life situations that inspired her are complex, and she has woven in --- very fluidly --- some seriously cool, grown-up magic. What I did take from it was simply marvelous, and I’m grateful that she has written such an expansive work of fantasy in this setting. I could feel the love she poured onto the page, and with it she created a very special, sparkling novel. And I absolutely devoured it. I am willing to reserve judgment on my above criticisms until I get to read book two, which I am eagerly looking forward to and imagine will smooth out some concerns.

Overall, this is a masterful debut. There were moments that gave me pause, but Chakraborty’s world washed over me. Her writing is excellent, lush and detailed. She illuminates sights, sounds and smells, and intricacies of magic, while also packing in page-turning action. I would definitely recommend it to fantasy fans.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on November 17, 2017

The City of Brass
by S. A. Chakraborty