The City of Brass – S.A. Chakraborty

About the Book

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…

533 pages (hardcover)
Published on November 14, 2017
Published by Harper Voyager
Author’s website
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This book was borrowed from the library. Yay libraries!

The City of Brass was a book that had been recommended to me a bunch of times, but I finally got around to reading it over the weekend. It surprised me and gave me a bit of a book hangover in the best possible way. An interweaving of Middle Eastern lore, with a tale that is all the author’s own, this one really worked for me.

That being said, I don’t think I was as overcome by the story as I probably could have been, though I was mightily overcome by it.

City of Brass tells the story of Nahri, who lives as an orphaned thief on the streets of Cairo in the eighteenth century. Things happen, and she discovers that she not only has magic but also could be a long-lost princess (kind of) of an important line that has all but died out. Inserted into this are djinn, a journey across a desert, and tons of intrigue.

In a lot of ways, this book really worked. For example, I felt instantly compelled to Nahri, and I love how the author balances out Nahri’s story with Ali’s. Both characters complement each other well, with a good dose of ignorance and naivete, but passion and both characters are sort of discovering who they are as the book progresses. Furthermore, I loved the social conflict in Daevabad and the struggles that the pureblooded and those with human blood face. The precarious balance of the society, and the very clear feeling of everything being balanced in an instant it will all break apart and chaos will reign is clear throughout.

I loved Chakraborty’s writing. Her prose flows easily, and she never wastes ten words saying what three could say. This gives the book an easy flow, a clear direction, and a directness that I really appreciated. I could focus more on the story and less on the fluff. As I mentioned above, the author mixes Middle Eastern lore with her own vision quite well here, and I think her prose really helped smooth the marriage of her real-world influence, mixed with her own imagination.

I also truly adored the sense of history. The Middle East is such an old place, and that history seems to be so intricately woven into so many aspects of life, it was nice to see that in the book, both in positive and negative ways. This wasn’t just a book that worked as the story unfolded for those who experienced it, but it also showed how events in the distant past, can shape an equally distant future, and intimately for the people it directly touches.

Furthermore, the religion is something I have to mention. I have Muslims in my family. My brother-in-law immigrated from that region, and my husband’s sister converted to the faith when they got married. They both absolutely LOVE finding books that really play on the Middle Eastern culture and history like this. More than that, they love seeing their religion in books portrayed as normal rather than abnormal or “scary” as it so often is these days. This, I guess, harkens back onto how important diversity and representation are in the books we read. I get overwhelmed and excited when I see the accurate and sensitive portrayal of disability in books. I imagine that’s how they feel when they see similar kind handed usage of their religion and culture. It is important that we see ourselves in the books we read, and if we don’t see ourselves, then we can maybe learn something from the things we do see.

Also, I’ve basically spent all weekend wanting to eat kebabs, so there is that, too.

I’ve been aching for fantasy like this, truth be told. I want something that uses other influences, other locals and cultures as the setting for the stories told. The world is such a big place, and I love it when the books I read explore that, and use it as fodder for the stories they are telling. In that respect, this book was just about everything I have been aching to read right now. It opens up another window into fantasy, into the world and a time period that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and bravo for that. That’s what our books should do, not just entertain us, but make us curious, illuminate, and expand our horizons. In that respect, The City of Brass excelled my expectations.

Now, a few things kept me back from being head-over-heels for this one. First, I thought there were some pacing issues. Some part, especially the journey to the city, felt a little stuffed full of things that didn’t really need to be there. It felt a little too long, while other parts felt a little too short.

Secondly, I kind of feel like I’ve read this general story before. Now that’s not always a bad thing, but the whole thief-becomes-princess-with-long-lost-powers thing isn’t really new. This is done in such a refreshing way that this didn’t really bother me, but the story has been told before, and I do think that could impact a reader’s overall enjoyment of it.

Third, while I truly enjoyed the romantic tension, and how relationships sort of naturally came about between characters, the book sort of devolved toward the end in predictable angst-ridden ways that, I don’t know, aggravated me, I guess.

However, while these might be a few complaints, the book as a whole really was charming to read. I loved the Middle Eastern overtones, the insertion of folklore, and the use of a culture that many of us in the West aren’t really fully exposed to. The author’s direct, beautiful prose cut to the heart of the matter, while keeping the book vivid enough for the city and the characters to come to life in my mind. As a debut work, this one was truly a joy to read, and I can’t wait to read the next in the series.

For me, a person who is rather sick of western-influenced speculative fiction, this book was like a song. It flowed well, told an artistically woven story, and if it hit a few wrong notes here or there, the song itself was so well crafted that I hardly noticed.

 

4/5 stars

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