For some reason I didn’t really read fantasy in 2018, and I’m not sure why because I’ve always loved the genre. I’m a lot more particular these days about how tropes are used and whether plots are being recycled, but I still love the worlds and the politics and the adventures. So I’m committing myself to reading more fantasy in 2019. I started the year with Sawkill Girls, which felt a bit like Fantasy Lite, and now I’m onto also read S. A. Chakraborty’s Deavabad trilogy, starting with The City of Brass, which (as an adult fantasy with about 100 more pages) was a lot more intense. In a good way.
About the book: Nahri lives an ordinary human life in Cairo. Well, normal except for the fact that she makes her living by stealing and conning and has an unusual talent for healing people. But all semblance of normalcy disappears when a ritual for banishing djinn from possessed bodies turns out to be less of a hoax than Nahri counted on. She accidentally summons a djinn who tells her that humanity is not her ancestral race. The two are chased back to magical Daevabad, where on the surface they are welcomed as esteemed guests of the royal family- Nahri is descended from a line of powerful and revered healers that were thought to be extinct, and her companion (Dara) is a renowned warrior of lore- but quickly find themselves trapped in a web of manipulations and deceit.
I guess I’ll start at the beginning.
When I first picked up The City of Brass, I had trouble getting into it. The writing is competent and descriptive but not at all flashy in the way that I usually expect from magical world-building. I wasn’t marking beautiful sentences because I wasn’t finding any.
Furthermore, the reason for the dispute between whether this is an adult or YA trilogy quickly made itself apparent- the two main characters who are the focus of the third-person narration (Nahri and Prince Ali) act like teenagers. One of them is a teenager. There’s no explicit content, other than a bit of scattered cursing. But the background information is very convoluted (there are two distinct groups referred to as Daeva, the words daeva and djinn seem like they should be interchangeable but are not, djinn cannot be separated from their relics but also djinn that are former slaves cannot be separated from their vessels, there was an infamous war and also a separate infamous rebellion, etc.) and much of the terminology is specific to this world. Mature teens could handle this book, but any reader who picks it up needs to be able to do some heavy mental juggling as a ton of world-building is laid out in this first volume. I actually had to use the glossary in the back of the book, which is unusual for me.
There is also a map of this magical land at the front, but I would’ve found a map of Daevabad much more beneficial.
But my biggest hang-up was worrying for almost half the novel that the story was turning out to be very trope-y and basic. I thought the writing weak when the djinn that Nahri summons waits to turn up *unexpectedly* until the banishment ritual is finished, Nahri has bribed her way into a shop, dined, and been kicked out, and is in the midst of taking a shortcut home through an enormous cemetery. Then he appears out of nowhere, just in time to help Nahri fight of the enemy that’s just about to attack with an army of ghouls. And of course, he’s very handsome and basically kidnaps her and in the course of their journey they become very attracted to each other. Meanwhile, in Ali’s perspective (who reminded me a lot of the prince from Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone), the young prince acts traitorously and makes mistake after mistake without personally taking any consequences. Early deaths lack emotional punch. Nahri feels very much like the “chosen one” and Ali feels on the brink of becoming a bland hero who always conveniently escapes real danger. An angsty love triangle seems imminent.
” ‘You weren’t so fond of me a week ago.’
He grumbled. ‘I can change my mind, can’t I?’ A blush stole into his cheeks. ‘Your company is not… entirely displeasing.’ He sounded deeply disappointed in himself.”
But about halfway through, things get interesting. Chakraborty doesn’t need flashy sentences- she’s got full command of this world and she turns it upside down a million times without letting any of her scaffolding topple. Relationships and politics are given depth and intriguing complications. People die. Secrets are outed. Unexpected alliances and enemies are made. Nahri, though she seems to be getting special treatment because of her family status, is actually being tested, and she’s failing. Dara has a lot more good and evil in him than he willingly shows. Ali faces real danger and sees real consequences. Everything that seemed simple turns out to be a mask or an outright lie.
” ‘I was also once a young warrior from the ruling tribe. It’s a privileged position. Such utter confidence in the rightness of your people, such unwavering belief in your faith…. Enjoy it.’ “
Although plot is maybe the wrong word to describe the way everything begins to unravel. This is very much a set-up book; it moves fairly slowly and is mainly focused on establishing the world, the motives of the various characters, and their connections to one another. There are few events, big or small. If you’re a reader who needs the first book of a series to blow you away, this may not be the trilogy for you. The Daevabad books require some patience, and some belief that a great payoff is worth the time it takes to get there.
I can’t end this review without talking about the fact that this is a Middle Eastern fantasy. The reason this is coming up so late here is because the cultural aspects had little impact for me. The call to prayer comes often, and at least one of the main characters is very religious, but that detail seems largely irrelevant to the story. Then there’s the fact that a prominent character states that the city’s religion (Islam) may have been adopted in Daevabad for political reasons rather than religious ones. The “tribes” are also on the verge of war with one another. As I’m fairly unfamiliar with abayas and feteers and the names for the different Muslim prayer times and traditions, their presence in the story came across mainly as just more unexplained terminology to wade through and I could only hope that their meaning would become clear enough in context. I wanted to learn about this area and its traditions while reading this book, but I don’t feel like I accomplished much of that. These details will probably have a lot more meaning to some readers than they did for me, but without a bit more explanation of their significance I fear a lot of the cultural influences were lost on me, which is really a shame.
But on another note, I thought the representation of strong women and non-binary characters was done well. Nahri leaves Cairo for a place with very different customs and expectations, and both she and her new acquaintances must find ways to accept each other and compromise where the other side won’t bend. She may not have come into her power fully yet, but she does stand up for herself. And there’s a hint of a great male-male romance on the horizon that I’m looking forward to a lot more than finding out which man Nahri is going to end up with. The straight romances revolving around Nahri seem like the weakest parts of this book, to be honest.
” ‘Don’t worry about my reputation,’ she said lightly. ‘I do enough damage on my own.’ “
I’m just so nervous about this series. It has a lot of promise, and if Chakraborty can pull it off I think these books will come to a phenomenal conclusion- but it’s going to be a tough balancing act to get there. There are a few more elements in The City of Brass that I’m unsure about, plot arcs that are just starting out now that could either go in a very good way or a very bad way, so I might have more to praise/complain about regarding this first book but I won’t know for sure until I see how it’s followed up in the next installment.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. All in all, The City of Brass was a very divided reading experience for me. The beginning was a solid 3 stars at best, and nothing that happened later has changed my opinion about the uninspired opening chapters. But the end was absolutely 5 stars and very promising as far as what’s coming next. I ordered the sequel the instant I finished reading- The Kingdom of Copper was JUST released, so I picked a great time to start The City of Brass. The jury’s still out on this trilogy for now- I have some predictions about where things are headed, and I’m definitely intrigued, but I can’t say based on this first book whether I’m invested in the entire trilogy yet. We’ll see what happens with book two. But either way, I’m fully committed to the fantasy genre once again.
- If you like cultural fantasies that are somewhat trope-y and somewhat trop-defying, try Tomi Adeyemi’s Nigerian first-in-a-series fantasy novel, Children of Blood and Bone. This one’s YA, but I think it has a lot of similarities to The City of Brass and that fans of one will enjoy the other, and the sequel is set for release in a few months.
- For more fantasy with fast(er) plotting and highly interesting character dynamics, don’t miss Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. If you like the juicy betrayals and close-kept secrets in The City of Brass, you’ll probably love this band of misfits and their long-con game. It’s sequel Crooked Kingdom is *almost* as good.
I’m way out of the loop in the fantasy game. Especially adult fantasy. Hit me with all the recommendations, please!
The Literary Elephant