Title: The City of Brass (Book #1 of the Daevabad Trilogy)
Author: S.A. Chakraborty
Publisher: Harper Voyager
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Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of 18th century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles.
But when Nahri accidentally summons an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to accept that the magical world she thought only existed in childhood stories is real. For the warrior tells her a new tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire, and rivers where the mythical marid sleep; past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises, and mountains where the circling hawks are not what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass, a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.
In that city, behind gilded brass walls laced with enchantments, behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments are simmering. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, she learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences.
After all, there is a reason they say be careful what you wish for…
(Taken from Goodreads)
Three things motivated me to buy this book: 1) The pretty colour scheme, blue and gold, which coincidentally is my favourite combination; 2) The Middle-Eastern design, which immediately interested me, as I love the folklore and I’m always excited to read diverse books; 3) The fact that I am running a D&D campaign set in an Arabian Nights-inspired world and the blurb of this book got very close to it. So needless to say: I was itching to get to this book and while away the quarantine in a magical universe!
What I Liked
The setting is masterfully created. Even as a Westerner, I was able to imagine the sights, the sounds and the tastes of Cairo and Daevabad. The descriptions, from architecture to foods, albeit long at times, were spellbinding. I appreciated that the world of the djinn is not perfect and magical, but actually very “human,” full of flaws and intrigue. It’s no safer or better than Cairo or the rest of the human world; it pushes the protagonists to navigate difficult situations, testing their abilities and character.
Fog shrouded the great city of brass, obscuring its towering minarets of sand-blasted glass and hammered metal and veiling its golden domes.
— The City of Brass
There is no “ultimately good” or “ultimately evil” character due to the extremely complicated politics of Daevabad. The cast is ambivalent, throwing no one in the light of the victim or the usurper alike. Nahri has good intentions, but she is stubborn, struggles under pressure and is inadequate to manage the political magnitude of kingship; Ali fights for loyalty, honour and equal rights, but is inexperienced and as such his outlook is detrimentally black-and-white; Dara simply wants some peace but violence and war haunt him. Right and wrong live in each character and their good intentions are thwarted by their methods and beliefs.
“Will you put that thing away? There are dozens of armed soldiers about—what are you going to do with that?”
“I’m being delivered to my enemy in a floral box,” Dara replied and flicked the chintzy curtains with the dagger. “I might as well be armed.”
— The City of Brass
As a reader, I had a real chance to think about the characters and pass my own judgements on them. It put me in an active role, a witness to the unraveling of a civilisation, and asked me to pick a side. This in itself made the story much more intriguing to follow. While doubtlessly convoluted, the politics didn’t drone on; something always happened to pick up the pace. It did eventually take on a somewhat repetitive pattern, but the events were varied enough to sustain my interest.
“Greatness takes time, Banu Nahida. Often the mightiest things have the humblest beginnings.”
— The City of Brass
On an aesthetic note, the cover of this edition is really vibrant. The blue and the gold foil really pop. The doors on the cover look like they’re waiting to open into a new world. It effectively set the mood for the read to come. This is really minor, but I also liked the type in which the book was set.
What I Liked a Little Less
Nahri and Dara’s journey to Daevabad is a device to bring the reader up to speed on the history of the djinn/daeva as well as the setting’s customs. I personally didn’t mind their little storytelling hours: they were entertaining like fairytales out of the Arabian Nights and balanced exposition with character development. However, the pockets of information that characterise all of Nahri’s early chapters and many later ones tend to drag down the pace, to the point that the plot becomes hard to spot.
The first three-quarters of the book, albeit tracing solid character development, are slow and description-heavy. I was rewarded for my patience in the final chapters, which kick it up a notch and truly set the story in motion. I believe more plot-relevant information was revealed (or at least hinted at) in the Epilogue than in entire chapters; while this surely preambles an exciting sequel, it also gave me the light impression of the book being somewhat unbalanced.
I spotted some inconsistencies, or unclear plot points. For instance, in the first third of the book, Suleiman’s seal is placed on Ghassan’s cheek but a few pages later is on his temple. On a more story-wide level: Dara states that the Nahids were hunted down by the ifrit, but a few chapters later he states that the Geziri slaughtered the Nahids in their attack on Daevabad. The history of the ifrit is also somewhat nebulous, but I count it will be clarified in the next instalment.
Since there is so much information, sometimes I felt characters and things slipped off the radar. For instance, the orphanage was briefly introduced and made out to be somewhat of a big deal, but then it didn’t come up again. Regardless of all the frustration and expectations put on her, Nahri was passionate about learning medicine (which was also how Dara persuaded her to travel to Daevabad), but this is somewhat lost as the book carries on. Dara’s weak point of needing to recover after using too much magic is present in the first chapters, but not brought up again in later displays of prowess. So much is introduced and then left out that I was at times perplexed.
Lastly, I found some typos here and there, in the form of missing words.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, but do bear in mind it will require some patience on your part.
Other books like this: You would definitely enjoy Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri.
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