The City of Brass isn’t the perfect novel by any means, but the characters are engaging, the setting is magical, and the plot is full of twists. It has mystery, romance, magic, fear, brutality, laughter. It has it all and it’s an excellent fantasy novel.
The first in the Daevabad trilogy, this book is told from the perspectives of two characters; Nahri and Alizayd. Nahri lives as a con artist in 18th century Cairo. She is orphaned and alone and relies on herself. Ali is a prince of Daevabad, conflicted between his own morals and faith, and doing right by his family. Chakraborty was able to write two distinct voices and point of view effortlessly.
Nahri’s criminal activities eventually catch up to her after she accidentally summons a mysterious Djinn warrior, Dara. She has to accept that maybe, the old childhood stories have some truth in them as she learns that she has Djinn ancestry. Dara is just as flabbergasted that she summoned him, and they are thrown into a journey to the hidden city of Daevabad as they try to outrun some dark forces coming after them. And so begins Nahri’s entanglement in a world of Islamic mythology and lore, landing herself in a city on a knife’s edge, and in the middle of a political conflict stretching back to the time of King Suleiman.
And what a journey! Despite many moments of excitement and tension, I have to say that some parts did seem a little dense. As with most fantasy books, there is a lot of information to pack in for the reader to understand, and I think the appropriate amount of world-building was put in. It helped that Nahri was also new to this world, and we were learning alongside her, but it did become a little difficult to keep track of the different djinn races and who sided with who.
The political aspects of the book and the inner workings of Daevabad may be overwhelming for some, but just stick to it! I’m not usually one for actually utilising a glossary as it disrupts the flow of my reading, but sometimes I had to use the one in the book to understand what was going on. I know I’ll definitely have to reread when the final book in the trilogy is released, (I’ve read both this and the second book and am eagerly awaiting book 3 in August) just to remember everything that was happening.
Most of the excitement and intrigue of the plot occurred in the last few pages, which made me glad I stuck by the book! But what really made me stay most of all was Alizayd. Ali is my favourite character, and if Chakraborty doesn’t give him happiness; I’ll be extremely angry.
Ali is a pious, self-serious and kind-hearted scholar, trying to understand his own privilege and to balance exercising his own power with the love he has for his powerful family. He is suffering an inner battle between wanting to be a good brother and son, and doing something about the injustice the city’s people face under his father’s rule. He’s compassionate and humble and complex. I really enjoyed watching him face his own prejudices and realise that he perhaps judged others too harshly.
He is flawed, but ultimately wants justice and peace in the kingdom he calls home.
For a book that is lauded for its Muslim and Middle Eastern representation, I feel that the Muslim aspect was lacking. It would have been far more constructive for the book to have been displayed as a Middle Eastern inspired fantasy. Ali was the only character who was remotely portrayed as being Muslim, and he was ostracised for it by almost everyone including his family.
He was regarded as strange and different for declining his brother’s invitation to drink alcohol, for not interacting with the opposite sex, for not frequenting parties, etc. He was even called a “religious fanatic”, which was completely unwarranted, and worst of all, left unchallenged by the author.
I am definitely not saying that all Muslims display the same sense of piety and have the same opinions. There is no monolith to those who observe the religion and faith differs from person to person; influenced by an individual’s culture, community and upbringing, as well as individual thought. But that diversity within Muslims was not portrayed at all. It was Ali’s piety vs. everyone else which was a little disappointing.
Chakraborty does have a lovely writing style and I really enjoyed the beautiful descriptions and the wit in her dialogues. There was a healthy amount of humour.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading The City of Brass, and can confidently say that the pacing and world-building does get better in book two. If Middle Eastern mythology interests you, then give it a go!