The City of Brass

The City of Brass was written by S.A. Chakraborty and first published in 2018. It is a fantasy novel set in 18th Century Cairo, which focuses on a young woman who accidentally summons a djinn warrior. The novel forms the first part of The Daevabad Trilogy and is followed by The Kingdom of Copper (2019). The final instalment – The Empire of Gold – is expected to be released in early 2020.

Nahri does not believe in magic, though she is happy to profit from the people who do. Although she possesses an odd knack for knowing when her customers are ill, she uses her knowledge of rituals and palmistry to swindle the wealthy for every coin she can get. However, magic soon finds her. When she sings an ancient summoning song while performing a zar – an exorcism rite – she finds herself bound to a mysterious djinn warrior.

Dara is dark, brooding and takes an immediate disliking to Nahri. However, his opinion begins to change when a powerful Ifrit shows an interest in her. It’s clear that there is something odd about Nahri, and her strange abilities point to the fact that she might actually belong to an ancient tribe of daeva healers – one that was thought to have been wiped out decades before. Dara knows that the only way to keep Nahri safe is to get her to Daevabad – a hidden daeva city – yet the journey will be long and fraught with danger. It will take all of their skills and cunning to stay ahead of the Ifrit and other monsters that roam the desert.

Unbeknown to Dara and Nahri, Daevabad is on the cusp of war. The king struggles to keep each tribe satisfied, while also keeping half-breed shafits deliberately downtrodden to prevent any uprisings. Alizayd al Qahtani – second son of the king – is unsatisfied by the way that shafits are treated but his well-meaning attempts to help them ends disastrously, leaving him uncertain of how to preserve his name while still helping the lower classes. To survive in Daevabad, both Ali and Nahri need to learn how to play the game and outwit cunning djinn who have had centuries to secure power. Failure will mean certain death…

I wanted to fall in love with The City of Brass. I truly did. I have reviewed hundreds of fantasy novels that are set in Europe and so I am always on the look out for stories that are more diverse in terms of characters and themes. I wanted so badly to enjoy this novel that I was heartbroken to find that it just did not speak to me. In fact, I am incredibly on the fence regarding whether I enjoyed reading it at all.

Let’s start by looking at the positives. The City of Brass really stands out stylistically due to its setting and diversity. The novel is entirely set in Northern Africa, moving swiftly from the streets of Cairo to the fantasy city of Daevabad. Because of this, it had a very different feel to your typical young adult fantasy novel. The cast was entirely made up of people of colour and the setting was deeply inspired by the myths and legends of the East, from flying carpets and luxurious harems, to wish granting djinn and fiery ifrit.

While it was this world-building that attracted me to the novel, I was disappointed to find that this was not without problems. From the novel’s very first chapter, Chakraborty bombarded the reader with all manner of concepts. While The City of Brass does contain a brief glossary in the back to explain certain words, it does not help the reader to keep track of the allegiances of the several daeva tribes – or even which characters actually belong to which tribe in the first place!

The City of Brass is an unforgiving and immersive novel, throwing the reader headfirst into daeva culture with no exposition or preamble. I quickly found it frustrating to try and remember the unique traits of each tribe, especially as the novel confusingly introduced the fact that each had their own unique nicknames, insults and slurs to refer to their rivals. I was over half way through the novel when I realised that the world “djinn” was being used as both an insult and the name of a religion, and that “daeva” was sometimes used to describe one particular tribe but other times to describe the race as a whole!

This was needlessly complicated and could certainly have been streamlined and simplified to make the novel easier to read. While I am certain that some readers will dig how immersive and detailed Chakraborty’s world is, I expect an equal number will find themselves very lost. The City of Brass is not easily accessible and the early chapters in particular were a bit of a warren of sub plots. It could certainly have been trimmed for length to remove some of these superfluous elements and help the novel flow better.

Yet my biggest issue with the story was its pacing. For a debut novel, The City of Brass is very long and took well over 200 pages to find its feet. Nahri and Dara take an age to reach Daevabad and their journey quickly becomes a frustrating cycle of bickering and Ifrit attacks. Although the plot rapidly speeds up in its second act, I felt that it then flipped too far the other way. A lot of character development in this section occurs off-page, only to be related to the reader later. After so much time was spent detailing Nahri’s journey, it was irritating to see that her friendship with Ali was exposited to the reader more than shown.

The ending of the novel was very abrupt but I will credit it for containing a rather surprising incident that I certainly did not see coming. I won’t spoil it for you here in case you intend to read this novel, but it did leave me curious to find out what will happen next. Yet, at the same time, I was left feeling unsatisfied. The final battle came totally out of the blue and seemed to be sparked by the tiniest of arguments. It also left many loose threads hanging, especially with regards to the Ifrit who rapidly fade from the plot after the halfway mark.

In terms of characterisation, I was also left feeling very disappointed. While Nahri initially seemed to be intelligent and self-sufficient, she lost all of this as soon as she was forced to flee from Cairo. In the second half of the story, she sadly became a bit of a shrinking violet. Despite her high talk about scamming the royal family, she is virtually dependant on Ali and Dara. She does not develop any new skills of her own and ultimately proves to be unable to hold her own against the wills of the male protagonists.

Ali and Dara had their own problems. While Dara started out being more likeable than the stuffy and pious prince, this flipped as soon as all characters were introduced to each other in Daevabad. While I did find the very different impression that Dara made on both Nahri and Ali to be interesting, he grew increasingly violent and detestable as the story neared its climax. While Ali was naïve and prone to doing very stupid things, his heart was at least in the right place. However, I was left a little confused as to why every other character was so derogatory towards his religion. While he was described by others as being a zealot and extremist, this never really came across in the story.

Anyhow, I think that about covers everything. While I am curious to see where the story will go in The Kingdom of Copper, I was left disappointed by this first instalment. The City of Brass was diverse and complex, but it was poorly paced and some of its themes were made far more complicated than they really needed to be. Hopefully, these issues will be ironed out next time.

The City of Brass can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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