The City of Brass: A Conversation with S.A. Chakraborty
This month's Den of Geek Book Club pick is the start of a rich, imaginative new historical fantasy series.
The Den of Geek Book Club is currently reading The City of Brass, the first book in a new historical fantasy series from S.A. Chakraborty. (You can check out our full review here!)
Set in the 18th-century Middle East, The City of Brass follows Nahri, a young woman living in Cairo who gets pulled into a magical world of djinn, and Ali, a young prince living in the djinn city of Daevabad.
We had a chance to talk with Chakraborty about crafting this new fantasy world, what’s next in the series, and what stories she is currently enjoying. Here’s what she had to say…
Den of Geek: Where did The City of Brass start?
Chakraborty: It was very much a private project at first. I had studied history in college and I wanted to go to graduate school, but couldn’t. I was working in an unrelated field and I had a newborn daughter and I just wanted to do something with all of the things that I read, that I still read, because I loved this world.
So I started what was sort of a historical fanfiction project. And I was like, ‘What if these people were here, and what if these people were here, and they built this?’ And then I enjoyed doing it so I said, ‘Maybe I’ll make it a novel,’ and I added some characters. And then I said, ‘Maybe I’ll join a writer’s group’ and so now I’m here.
Wow, so how long did all of that take?
You know what, I thought it was three or four years, but then I actually looked back to my biography and it was more like six, seven years. But the actual, ‘OK, lets add characters and make it a novel’ was five [or four].
Why did you chose Nahri and Ali as point-of-view-characters?
It was always them to begin with. The plot came to me relatively quickly and didn’t change too much as I was going along and it was really these two paths. I wanted to show a character from each opposing side, and to show characters who were very different in many ways, yet who might have little things in common, like being nerds and geeking out together in the library.
Was one of them more enjoyable for you to write?
They’re both very enjoyable. I mean Nahri is fun to write, and whenever I get the question ‘Are you more like Nahri or are you more like Ali?,’ I’m like, ‘I would love to be like Nahri, but Ali frets over religious law and has no social graces.’ So, I found his viewpoint a lot easier to slip into. I enjoyed writing them both, but there is something about Ali that I find it easy to think how he would be. I don’t know what that says about me.
One of Nahri’s abilities is the ability to speak and understand almost any language. Was that always a part of her character? Why did you include it?
Yeah, it was. For a lot of reasons. If I snap my fingers and have any superpower, that would be it. Then I wouldn’t be struggling with learning Arabic.
And also, I was working in healthcare at the time that I had that idea. [And I thought], if you were giving out abilities based on what these people [need most], you would need a more effective way to communicate.
I thought it was interesting that you started in the real world and then moved into this more magical fantastical world. Why did you make that choice to start there and move into the fantasy?
When I started, I knew I wanted to start it in the real world and have my readers kind of catch up with where it was, what was going on [at that time]. It almost follows tradition of a lot of medieval Arabic literature and the folklore, in which this man goes out from the city to have this great adventure and stumbles upon this otherworldly palace, or kingdom, or mountainous valley.
What were the challenges and/or freedoms of using non-western mythology that, at least for western readers, is not very familiar?
You know what, it’s funny because I get variations of this question and I kind of didn’t worry about readers unfamiliar with the Islamic history and culture used in the novel … I stayed in the world of the book and it was more a matter of, OK, if I need to explain something in the text for people who might not be familiar, I’ll explain it. But I wrote more for my community, for fellow Muslims who would know what I was talking about. I focused on them and then I had people who were outside of [the community] read it and go, ‘OK, I’d like to understand what this means.’ And you just explain again.
You have such a unique perspective as someone who grew up in a Catholic family and then converted to Islam but also you know became very interested in this history of the early Islamic world. I am curious what your specific identity, kind of in-between these two worlds, informed your writing of this story.
I’ve been a Muslim since I was 17 years old, so it’s been 14 years. I am also a white American; I come from a large extended Italian Irish family in Jersey. That’s my identity and while it took a while, I’m comfortable with that and aware that I’m writing about a part of the world that isn’t mine, so I try to be respectful of that. I’m a convert; a guest. And when someone invites you into their house, you don’t gossip to the neighbors about, their rugs are dirty and like, this or that is going on.
So I enjoy it, I try to respect it, and I don’t ever forget that it’s not mine and it comes with an extra level of responsibility. I just try to keep that in mind.
What are you a fan of in terms of in the world of storytelling right now?
Right now, I’m really into Star Trek: Discovery. I am a huge science fiction fan; I actually probably like it more than fantasy. But I really like Star Trek: Discovery. I wasn’t sure and then it took off and then they had the midseason finale and I was like, ‘You can’t leave us now.’
You subvert some of the expectations of the reader when it comes to romance in this story. Was that something you were conscious of when writing?
I wanted to create somebody very real and very flawed. At the same time, sometimes you don’t really know the people you fall for. And sometimes you fall for flawed people. What do you do with that?
Dara, I won’t spoil it, is very flawed. [Nahri] has some decisions to make. What do you do with a guy like that? When it’s not the dashing hero who rescues you, but somebody a lot more complicated?
SPOILER ALERT! FROM HERE ON, DON’T READ UNLESS YOU’VE ALREADY READ THE BOOK OR DON’T MIND BEING SPOILED.
I love that part of the book. I cover a lot of television, as well. And there’s just so many… I covered Vampire Diaries and the love story is not complicated in a way that maybe it should be. But, with Dara, you still understand why he is the way he is; you have sympathy for him.
I also wanted to look at the idea of agency in a relationship and in particular the trope of some hero “saving” female characters. What if you don’t want to be saved, or if in fact you’re rather capable of saving yourself in a way the “hero” doesn’t like? With Dara, I wanted the reader to have sympathy and understand why he is the way he is… but also to be pretty clear that makes him flawed in a way Nahri doesn’t realize until she’s already fallen. What does she then do with that information?
I think the moment where he takes the choice away from her is a very clear moment. Before that, you are unsettled about their relationship a little bit, but you’re also like, ‘Well, we’ll see what happens.’ And then that moment happens…
Yeah, I mean it starts with, ‘I don’t need you to save me.’ and escalates pretty quickly to, ‘Hi, I’m going to murder your friend if you don’t go along.’
Have you started writing the next book?
Can you talk about if the point of view characters are the same?
There’s an additional one.
This is early days, because it was just published yesterday. But there have been some copies out there in the world for a while now. I’m curious if any reactions or readings or interpretations or even like people liking certain characters more than others has surprised you?
Dara has charmed far more people than I imagined which I suppose does work for a being who spent centuries luring his human masters towards untimely ends, but since he’s difficult to discuss without completely spoiling the book, I’ll stop right there!
So, one aspect of the djinn character is that they’re walking amongst us and watching civilizations rise and fall. Was that ever more a part of this story, or will that be a part of this story moving forward in terms of seeing the real world?
Yes, not necessarily in Book Two, but possibly in Book Three. I don’t want to totally spoil it. But if certain characters return, then you could see how that [the real world] would then play in, because now they’re on the other side.
The City of Brass is now available for purchase, or you can enter Den of Geek’s book giveaway.