So I turned 29 and subsequently spent £90 on books. In one fell swoop. Well, two fell swoops, if you count buying six in the shop and then ordering a further seven on the train on the way home. Anyway, The City of Brass was one of them and it was the first one I picked up when I settled down to read my haul. Unfortunately, I’ve probably set myself up for failure because there’s no way the rest of them can be anywhere near as good as this.
Plot summary: Among the bustling markets of eighteenth century Cairo, the city’s outcasts eke out a living swindling rich Ottoman nobles and foreign invaders alike.
But alongside this new world the old stories linger. Tales of djinn and spirits. Of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert, full of enchantment, desire and riches. Where magic pours down every street, hanging in the air like dust.
Many wish their lives could be filled with such wonder, but not Nahri. She knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about them. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes…
Be careful what you wish for.
Rating: * * * * *
The story starts in very late 18th Century Egypt, right after the invasion of Napoleon. Fortunately, you need absolutely zero historical knowledge as the magical hijinks kick in before too long, and we’re whisked off on a wonderful journey that never mentions Napoleon again.
I keep typing and deleting, and typing and deleting, as I try to work out which aspect of this story to rave about first. Let’s start with the plot then, as I’ve touched on it already. It’s pretty amazing, to be honest. I wouldn’t say it’s 100% unique, as djinn, ifrit, Solomon, etc, are all part of Middle Eastern mythology and have therefore been used in countless other works of fiction before this one. That said, I’ve never seen so much effort put into a story before. There’s a lot going on here.
The narratives alternate (more or less) between Nahri, an Egyptian orphan of unknown heritage, whisked away by a djinn she accidentally summons, and Prince Ali (…of Akhbar!? I’ve been singing that song for days now), the devoutly religious second son of the monarch of Daevabad. Their ‘voices’ are sufficiently different to keep the reader occupied, and whilst I’d say that I preferred Nahri’s chapters, there wasn’t really much in it.
There are multiple different plotlines – Nahri’s heritage, a looming rebellion, Dava’s past and his true loyalties, and Ali’s disillusion with the power of the ruling elite. Unusually, I was equally interested in all of it, and that’s down to the skill with which each strand is woven. I’ve read reviews that say The City of Brass is slow to start, and I can understand that. It is, sort of. But I didn’t really notice until this was pointed out to me, as I was so wrapped up in the lore and the world-building.
Ah yes, the world-building. Maybe I should have started with that. It’s incredible. On her website, S.A. Chakraborty mentions that she’s ‘a white convert’ to Islam and in a recent interview she states:
In Islam, we believe you have humans, angels, and all these other creatures, including the djinn, who are created from smoke or fire. They live alongside us, but you can’t see them, and they live for hundreds and thousands of years. As a history lover, I thought that was just great.
So the fundamental concept is based on Islamic lore, but that feels almost dismissive of the work that Chakraborty has put into The City of Brass. Not only does Daevabad feel real, I’m pretty sure at times I could almost see and hear it. There’s a whole world here, with different tribes, races, factions… I would honestly read any book set in or around Daevabad. The magic system is very in-depth and I absolutely adore it, on the face of it.
But that does lead me to my only criticism of The City of Brass. Even now I couldn’t confidently tell you which races are djinn, or the differences between the tribes, or who can become a slave and who can’t, etc. There’s a lot to take in, and I frequently had to read a page a couple of times before I could get it straight in my head. There is a glossary at the back, but it doesn’t really help that much. As an example, a ‘relic’ is discussed fairly early on (as an actual plot point, not an irrelevant aside) but it’s not explained until half the book later what a relic actually is. It didn’t spoil my enjoyment, but a little more explanation would have been very helpful; either that or a more comprehensive glossary.
The characters are impressively nuanced, for the most part. Ali, in particular, struggles with balancing his faith against his family, and his morals against his politics. It was occasionally a bit heavy-handed when he refers to ‘the right religion’ etc, but it was infrequent enough for me to overlook it. The real star of The City of Brass is Dava, however, the djinn who Nahri accidentally summons in the streets of Cairo. I love him. His personality is so complex that you’re never quite sure what’s going on; you don’t know what his motives are, how much of his power he’s hiding, why he’s so feared… He’s just sort of perfect, actually.
The ending is intense. It’s revealing and brutal and intense. It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, not really, it’s not that cheap of a novel. However, it does raise questions that I want answered now. I checked when the next book is out and was disappointed to learn it’s not until January 2019. Then I checked again just in case I was wrong and it was actually earlier (I wasn’t and it’s not).
The City of Brass is honestly incredible. I’d be very, very surprised if it doesn’t make it onto my eventual Top Ten list at the end of the year. The world, the story, the characters are all masterfully crafted and I’ll be devouring anything that S.A. Chakraborty writes. If she wrote a cereal packet blurb, I’d read it.