Book Review: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

This book has been on TBR for ages and I’m really happy to have finally gotten my hands on it. I was a bit apprehensive to start this, having been disappointed by any highly-anticipated books in the past. However, The City of Brass did not disappoint one bit and I have its sequel patiently awaiting on my bedside.

It’s somewhat difficult to place this book. Though categorized as young adult, the story reads like an adult political-fantasy. Told in dual view points, The City of Brass is a Muslim fantasy surrounding the mystical, mythical city of Daevabad, a political power-center ruled by djinns and veiled from human sight. The two main protagonists – Nahri and Ali – provide dual perspectives so the reader is allowed to understand and visualize the world from various angles: an orphan con-artists with little know-how of her magical origins, and a somewhat naive prince in a precarious diplomatic position.

Though the plot was a little slow – Nahri doesn’t get to Daevabad until about half-way in – I found the gentle pace helped in absorbing the setting. Any faster and the large expanse of geography, allegiances, ethnicities, tribes and rituals would be overload of information. Moreover, the slow pace of the first ten chapters is more than made up for later and there are enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. I also liked the way the writer made it difficult to pick sides. The history reveals itself in a nexus of ideologies and timelines – part-legend, part-facts – and the characters are layered enough that the lines between good and bad are not easily drawn.

I must confess though, that more than the characters, its the world building that won me over. What begins as intriguing tale in 18th century Cairo, goes on to become – albeit slowly – a complex world layered with magic and fantastical species made from various elements [Air, water, fire and earth.] There’s history, language, internal politics, secret revolutions and uprisings, and ethnic wars among djinn tribes that appear very human in their grudges. The economic system is realistic, the medicines part magic, part science, and I’d give a limb to have access to the palaces Alexandrian libraries – magical snake-like guardians included.

It was absolute delight reading a universe carved right out of Islamic mythology. The system of magic has me mystified but the names, dialects and dress-codes lend it the familiar, beloved air of my childhood tales. Prophet Suleiman’s powers over the beings of fire, djinns’ manipulation of humans, a character named Ali and his beloved forked zulfiqar

That being said, the world-building is not free of Orientalist iconography. To be honest, I didn’t predict it to be so not much surprised there. There are flying carpets, exotic bazaars and concubines, and djinn slaves who grant wishes. The city of Daevabad appears to be a cross between Babylon and Baghdad with enough magic to satisfy any One Thousand and One Night’s fan. Moreover, the ethnic tensions and political balance-of-power fist-cuffs can be easily compared to present day Middle East.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed it, The City of Brass is not without it faults. I found myself questioning Nahri’s obsession with Dara. Given her difficult background – loner, manipulative con-artist – and the latter’s evasion of his own history, her continued trust and blinding attraction for the daeva were not easily swallowed. I also had some problem with the stigma attached and ostracization of Alizayd’s supposed religious morality. But given the characters age and otherwise amazing storytelling, these two faults are easily ignored. I also had issues with the not-so-subtle baits about Muntadhir and Jamshid’s relationship, as well the entire character that is the Dara-e Afshin, but I’ll be saving those for book two.

The City of Brass is an solid fantastical read, but not an easy read. Their are too many names to memorize and the descriptions of violence are detailed enough to make you flinch. But the enjoyable prose and intriguing plot makes this book un-put-downable. Well-researched representation of brown people in fantastical fiction has been a cherished dream and it was a pleasure reading about characters and lands with familiar names. There are mosques, teas, headscarves, turbans and swords galore but the portrayal is human and natural, not biased or exotic. The ending alone made me tear up a little and the epilogue packed enough punch to send my head reeling. I’d recommend this book to any fiction reader who loves diverse world building, complex history and characters that make you question your ideas of rewards, sins and greater goods.

Rating: Solid 4.5/5

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