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The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

book cover of The City of Brass

I came across this book a while ago, and promptly added it to my "Want to Read" list, intrigued by its Middle Eastern setting and use of Islamic mythology. Unfortunately it then languished on that list for much longer than it deserved to. Well, not any more! Finally I've taken the plunge into The City of Brass, and despite the slow first half, I ended up riveted and really excited to read the second book.

The plot itself, if you reduce it to the essentials, is perhaps not the most original. It begins with Nahri, a professional con artist in nineteenth-century Cairo, with magical powers of healing and no recollection of her childhood. One day she's attacked by malevolent demons called ifrit, and saved by a haughty magical being named Dara, and through this discovers she's actually some kind of long-lost Chosen One to a magical society she knows nothing about. Dara insists that, for her safety, he he has to take her to the city of Daevabad (and then her storyline slows right down because the journey takes up a huge fraction of the book).

The other POV character is Ali, a young prince (second son of Daevabad's king) who wants to help the oppressed shafit, residents of the city who are of mixed magical and human descent. He's a devout Muslim, someone who (at least at the start of the book) wants to assume the best in everyone, and painfully naive. He ends up feeling caught between loyalty to his family and his sense of justice, and I found him a really compelling character.

So you know, Chosen One outsiders to hidden magical societies and junior royals with consciences are not the most unique fantasy characters out there (not that lacking uniqueness would make them unenjoyable). However, the setting and world-building of this story are just incredibly absorbing. I'll admit that the world-building can feel very dense, especially if you (like me) are not very familiar with Islamic mythology, because then you have that to absorb on top of the history and politics of the kingdom of Daevabad. That said, I think it's well worth persevering! The book's last section is action-packed, and since all the groundwork has now been laid, I'm excited for how eventful the next instalment might be without so many hold-ups to explain the lore.

S.A. Chakraborty wanted to pursue an academic career in Middle Eastern history before life intervened and she eventually turned to writing, and I think that background is evident in the richness of the world she's created here. On top of the mythology she draws upon, there's also a lot of interesting stuff in the different tribes of Daevabad, the tensions between the different groups living in the city (which I could imagine mirroring other cities with long histories of diversity, like Jerusalem or Istanbul), and so on. I came to really enjoy the character of the king, calculating and ruthless, but you can follow his tyrannical logic, too. In fact, despite Ali's efforts, this is not really a story about good vs. evil at all, but about power. A lot of Nahri's story, too, becomes about how she can play the game before the other players play her.

So, I think I've made it clear that despite some slowness in the first half, I really enjoyed The City of Brass. If you like worldbuilding-heavy stories, I think this is well worth the read.

Books in the Daevabad trilogy

  1. The City of Brass (you are here)
  2. The Kingdom of Copper
  3. The Empire of Gold

★★★★

photo of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.