The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty is a Middle-eastern inspired fantasy/historical fantasy novel – full to bursting with amazing world-building, complex characters and intriguing mythology – and I loved it.
The story mainly follows Nahri, an orphan and thief/con artist from the back-streets of 18th century Cairo. One of her ‘jobs’ gives her more than she bargained for and summons the djinn/daeva Dara, who whisks her away into a world straight from myt, laced with plenty of dangerous political intrigue and magical creatures. The other main character we meet and see the story through is Prince Alizayd (Ali) – the second son of Daevabad’s king. Ali’s arc is one of moral complexity as he struggles to come to terms with what is the right thing to do throughout the story: a problem that explodes in complication when Nahri and Dara show up!
Each of our three main characters is brilliant for a variety of different reasons, as are the supporting cast of characters. Personal shout out to Ali’s brother, Muntadhir, who shines every time we meet him – he is definitely far more than the wine-sodden, hedonist that he first appears to be. I’ve already briefly spoken about what makes Ali interesting, but despite the moral quagmire of issues he finds himself stuck in, he was my least favourite of the three. I’m not sure why, but I found myself connecting with Nahri from the first page, while Dara’s whole tortured-soul thing was just really well done. I know he has done bad things in his past – we get little glimpses of these throughout the story – but you can’t help but like him.
The fact that Ali was my least favourite of these three surprised me as his story arc encompasses two of the things that I loved the most about this book: the political intrigue and the moral complexity. Daevabad’s court has no real good guys and this is something Ali struggles to come to terms with – something which is perfectly captured by his dad and the king, Ghassan, who desperately tip-toes the path of least bloodshed, knowing that each choice he makes will cause issues for one group or another in his city. These moral questions are at their most super-charged in Ali’s story, but prevalent throughout the other three main characters: are Nahri’s cons justified by the fact she would starve without them? Are Dara’s prejudices forgiven and understood because of his violent and traumatic past?
On a more light-hearted note, I have to give S.A. Chakraborty serious props for her writing style and prose that really brings this lavish world to life. She strikes a great balance between moving the story forward and beautiful descriptions. On the back of the UK hardback there is a quote where Sabaa Tahir (author of the An Ember in the Ashes series) says this is the best book she has read since Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, and I can really see why that comparison is made. Both are books where the quality of the writing and description really leaps out from the page and keeps you turning the pages.
Thankfully this writing has an amazing world to bring to life. The Middle Eastern inspired fantasy world felt so fresh and unique to me – perhaps that tells you about how much Middle Eastern inspired fantasy I read – and I definitely want more of it. One double-edge sword to this is that you may, like me, not be familiar with a lot of words and terms that are used in this book. I found myself constantly flipping to the reference section at the back or googling words in the first few chapters. This wasn’t a problem for me, in fact I quite liked it as I always enjoying learning about other cultures and mythologies, but I can see how others might get annoyed by that.
!!!SPOILER WARNING FOR THE NEXT PARAGRAPH!!!
Now, I always try to write balanced reviews so it is only fair to give some critique to the book, but really, there isn’t much I can say. As is typical for me, my (small) issue is the romance. To me, the romantic interest between Nahri and Dara felt a little forced and bolted on. I felt like it was done to justify Dara’s overly-protective nature towards her, but without the romance, his attitude would have felt totally justified. Plus, he is thousands and thousands of years old, while she is twenty… I did like how Ali’s was completely friend-zoned by Nahri, while being besotted.
As you can probably tell from this review, I would definitely recommend this book! I absolutely devoured it – finishing the last 250 to 300 pages in two days. That may not be impressive for some bloggers (How the hell some of you read so many books, I will never know) but that is rapid for me! So yeah, go pick this up and get lost in a world of magic, myth and political intrigue.
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