The City of Brass
by S.A Chakraborty
Among the bustling markets of eighteenth century Cairo, the city’s outcasts eke out a living swindling rich Ottoman nobles and foreign invaders alike.
But alongside this new world the old stories linger. Tales of djinn and spirits. Of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert, full of enchantment, desire and riches. Where magic pours down every street, hanging in the air like dust.
Many wish their lives could be filled with such wonder, but not Nahri. She knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about them. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes…
Be careful what you wish for.
Considering I’m a fantasy lover with an interest in learning more about Islam, I don’t read enough Middle Eastern-inspired fantasy. The City of Brass was the reminder I needed that I should be reading more books like it, because I had so much fun with this novel.
Steeped in djinn/genie folklore and Middle Eastern and North African history, The City of Brass follows con artist Nahri in 18th century Cairo. She makes a living on the Egyptian streets as a fake healer, despite having a true knack for diagnosing people and the ability to instantly heal herself should she ever be injured. It’s her dream to earn enough money to travel to Istanbul and train as a doctor, but earning enough money for that dream is practically impossible.
Then one night a con goes wrong when Nahri accidentally summons a warrior djinn, Dara, who reveals there’s more to Nahri’s heritage than she ever realised, and takes her back to the djinn-inhabited city of Daevabad.
In Daevabad we follow Ali, the second son of the current ruling monarch, who’s learning firsthand just how dangerous it is to get involved in the politics of their world when he tries to help the shafit – inhabitants of Daevabad who are the descendants of djinns’ relationships with humans – who are treated like second-class citizens even though they outnumber the djinn.
The world-building throughout The City of Brass is exquisite. Not only was it clear to me that I was reading a fantastical society inspired by Islam rather than Christianity by an author who is Muslim herself, but Chakraborty’s love for Middle Eastern history is so prevalent throughout; the city of Daevabad is lush and brutal, and the politics, from the differences between the various races of djinn to the differences between the djinn and the shafit, were explored so well. There is no black and white in this world, it’s complex, and I love me a fantasy novel with politics I can sink my teeth into.
My main issue with this book – and that’s not to imply I didn’t enjoy it, because I really did – was, sadly, Nahri herself.
I expected to love Nahri because I love reading about con artists. I’d never want to meet a con artist in real life, but something about reading about them, particularly in a fantasy setting, I so enjoy; I love reading about clever characters, even if they’re not using their wits for particularly honest work. For me, though, Nahri wasn’t really playing the part of a con artist for the majority of this novel.
On the one hand I have no problem believing that she’s terrified of the turn her life has taken, nor that she tries to escape when Dara decides to take her to Daevabad. This all makes perfect sense. Nahri doesn’t believe in magic (although I’m not entirely certain why when she automatically heals when injured and can understand any language she hears) so when Dara shows up and she learns the djinn are real, she’s understandably shocked.
Unfortunately, the Nahri we meet right at the beginning of this novel disappeared for me throughout the majority of the book. The con artist I wanted popped up again right at the end, so I’m excited to see more of the heroine I was hoping Nahri would be in the sequels, but throughout The City of Brass I felt as though Nahri just… let things happen to or around her. Again, I appreciate that she’s completely out of her depth, but even her desire to be a doctor made little sense to me because she doesn’t seem to like people all that much. I never quite got her, and I expected to.
There’s also a slight romance between her and Dara which I’m not the biggest fan of, and a lot of that is because I’m not the biggest fan of Dara. His backstory is interesting and I’d like to know more about him, but he’s over 1,000 years old and still sulks like a teenager when the mood takes him. I never warmed to him, and I didn’t like the way he treated Nahri either. He was either repulsed by her because he thought she was lesser than him, or he was over-protective in that worrying, borderline abusive way. He kept keeping secrets from her and she kept blindly trusting him despite it all and, while I did enjoy some of their initial banter, for the most part their relationship just frustrated me.
The star of this novel for me was Ali, who I can’t wait to see more of. If it weren’t for Ali, if this story had only followed Nahri and Dara, I don’t think I’d be all that interested in continuing with the series. Ali, though, I adored. He wants to help the shafit, he believes the way they’re treated is wrong and against the religion the majority of the djinn follow, but defending them could mean turning his back on his own family. He’s constantly trying to make a conscious effort to do the right thing, but Daevabad is so political that the ‘right thing’ to do isn’t always easy to identify.
He’s not perfect by a long-shot, but I so appreciate that Chakraborty writes real people with real prejudices and flaws. He’s the most morally complex character in the book, although his older brother is also someone I’d like to see a lot more of, and he’s interesting because Chakraborty doesn’t let his shitty views go unchallenged.
Ali is very devout, and he looks down on other people who don’t share his religion or his views, but other characters call him out on his bullshit and he feels like such a different character by the end of the novel to the boy we meet at the beginning. The main reason I want to pick up The Kingdom of Copper is to see more of him.
The City of the Brass wasn’t quite the 5 star read I thought it might be considering it has so much in it that I love, but it’s a great start to a series and I can’t wait to read more!