Genre: Fantasy, Historical
Publisher: Harper Voyager on November 14, 2017
My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.
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. View Spoiler »
I’ve read and loved a lot of historical fantasy in my time, but few are as accomplished as S.A. Chakraborty’s debut novel, THE CITY OF BRASS.
On the streets of 18th century Cairo, Nahri gets by using her unusual gifts to perform various rituals to placate spirits and deities she doesn’t believe in at the behest of her customers. But she soon finds that all the stories she scoffed at are indeed true…and her abilities are more than merely unusual. Whisked away from Cairo by a mercurial djinni or “daeva” called Dara, Nahri gets a crash course in her illustrious magical heritage but she’s far from prepared for the intrigue that awaits her in Daevabad, the City of Brass.
I couldn’t help but love Nahri, with her street smarts, resilience, and her searing wit. She had me laughing aloud and wincing in sympathy at her various personal and political missteps in Daevabad, and I found her incredibly relatable. Admittedly I found it more difficult to connect with the young Prince Ali, a son of the most powerful family in Daevabad whose sanctimonious attitude and naiveté bordered on the unbelievable at times. But his character growth is realistic and when the reasons for his behaviour eventually become clear, Ali’s outlook is much easier to understand. After all, who hasn’t naively believed whatever they were told and trusted all the wrong people at some point?
This is a world that will likely feel familiar to many readers, with its religious, linguistic and political tensions and nuances drawn from real-life history; despite the historical setting, I think that Nahri and Ali’s struggles and experiences are very timely for contemporary readers. From grappling with the tenets of religion versus the way they are practiced, with the realities of privilege and power, and the subjugation of the mixed blood human-daeva people known as shafit, the injustices witnessed by Nahri and Ali are just as much the problems of today as they are of 18th century Daevabad.
But have no fear, it isn’t all doom and gloom – there’s magic and wonder aplenty to be found in THE CITY OF BRASS. Chakraborty has created a rich, sumptuous world with complex magic and many new-to-me creatures. Following Nahri as she experiments with her healing abilities and other magic was a wild ride, full of ups and downs. Unlike many fantasy novels, Nahri’s abilities aren’t mastered through convenient training montages or a hyper-speed development of power, but through a slow grind and considerable failure. Ali isn’t as connected to the magical side of things, but we do get to know the feel of the city and its inhabitants through his eyes as he makes a number of ill-fated attempts to make Daevabad a better place for shafit.
While I’ve read a fair number of books that feature djinn, this depiction of them is by far the most creative and detailed I’ve yet to encounter. Particularly impressive is the way that Chakraborty tackles the abuse and trauma suffered by the daeva who are forced into slavery by their human masters; she pulls no punches in this regard, and I was both moved and disturbed by Dara’s experiences as a slave. It isn’t all happy fun wish time, y’all. Go figure!
Complex, moving, funny, magical, and thought-provoking, THE CITY OF BRASS has it all. S.A. Chakraborty absolutely blew me away with her debut, and I can’t wait to see what she has for us next.