If you’ve ever been interested in the mythology or settings in stories like Aladdin or Arabian Nights, The City of Brass might pique your interest. No, it has nothing to do with those tales, but the world is certainly reminiscent of them and it explores the idea of the djinn characters that pop up in many Middle Eastern legends.
The City of Brass, by S.A. Chakroborty, follows Nahri, an 18th century Cairo con-woman with healing abilities, who finds herself on the run after accidentally summoning a djinn (and a few nastier beings) during what she intended to be a fake ritual. The djinn, Dara, recognizes talents in Nahri that tie her to a powerful and revered family among his people, and whisks her away to Daevabad, the titular city of brass, for protection. Once there, she realizes Daevabad is a city on the brink of war, and her presence may be enough to send it over the edge .
The plot is slow burning, but that’s not to say there’s no action; it’s just hard to see what it’s all adding up to yet. Most of it related to more short-term goals of the characters; escaping or confronting trouble. Most of The City of Brass is setting up the world and the characters, giving just a vague sense that the overarching plot will have to do with Nahri uncovering the truth of her family and how she uses that to navigate Daevabad’s politics. Most of the payoff is still to come in the sequels, but I honestly didn’t mind that. Just getting to know this world made for an interesting enough book.
Nahri is a likable protagonist. She’s a savvy survivor, raising herself on the streets of Cairo, running her cons to save up for her real dream of becoming a doctor. She’s an independent thinker, unwilling to let custom, tradition, or tribal history dictate her decisions or habits in Daevabad, which makes it difficult for the schemers there to make her their pawn.
Dara, Nahri’s protector, has a mysterious backstory I’m looking forward to seeing explored in book two. He’s an ancient djinn (but don’t call him a djinn), an infamous warrior among his people before he was imprisoned for centuries and forced to grant the wishes of countless human masters. What’s unclear is how exactly he has his freedom now…I like Dara, though he often acts rashly and won’t let go of all his tribal prejudices/grudges.
Within Daevabad we meet Ali, our second POV and the second son of the king, who is training to one day serve his older brother. Ali is a young idealist learning the hard way that his world is not black and white, wanting to keep the peace in the city, but also wanting to defend the poor and downtrodden in his society. I feel for him, but with his inflexibility and complete ignorance of how to play the political game, I also felt a little impatient with him for most of the book. Whereas Dara’s more seasoned outlook felt like “Maybe my side made a few mistakes…but your side was worse,” Ali’s outlook was clearly, “My side is right and therefore just and it’s never occurred to me to question it or look at it from another point of view until now.”
You may notice I’ve just described three main characters, and they are two men and a woman…yes, there is the likelihood of a love triangle here. Actually, by the end of the book, it’s a much more complicated shape. Before you panic, though, it’s pretty one-sided (at least in this book). There’s no question in Nahri’s mind about who she loves romantically, but politics, history, and secrets threaten to pull her in other directions.
Daevabad’s social structure and history is thorough and fascinating, and I am very much looking forward to discovering more about it in the next book. The plot is dominated by a lot of political interplay between the six djinn (also called Daeva) tribes and the shafit (those of djinn and human heritage), and what I like is that no one tribe or faction is one hundred percent the “good guys.” What is revealed of the Daevas’ history is complex, and its clear that no matter how sincere the beliefs, atrocities have been committed by all sides. Good intentions are corrupted by the desperate as much as the wicked, making it difficult for the characters (and the reader) to know who to trust or what to do.
All in all, I give The City of Brass 3.5 stars out of 5 for thorough world-building and intrigue, and I have high hopes for the sequel.