We need diverse stories in our fiction more than ever, which is why The City of Brass, the first book in a historical fantasy trilogy set in the Middle East, is such a breath of fresh air. An epic fantasy series with no white people? See, Hollywood; it is possible.
The City of Brass, S.A. Chakraborty’s debut novel, follows Nahri, a young woman living in 18th-century Cairo, and Ali, a young prince living in the djinn city of Daevabad, as they struggle to stay alive, keep the ones they love protected, and use their political power in responsible ways. They are only moderately successful in achieving those goals.
Most of the historical fantasy’s 500-page story is set in the magical city of Daevabad, an ancient metropolis with political and cultural divides just as old. The eponoymous city of brass, Daevabad is a character in its own right (I know, I know), and the exploration of the different groups of magical peoples who call it home is one of the best aspects of this debut novel.
Currently ruled by Ali’s family, Daevabad is a city on a knife’s edge. The opressed shafits — aka the half djinn, half human population — are forced to live in terrible conditions, while the pureblood djinn get a bulk of the city’s resources, power, and freedom. The political framework of this world is so intricate that, at times, it can be confusing. In those moments, I would recommend flipping to the glossary at the back of the book.
However, even at its most confusing setting-wise, the character-driven storytelling of the book is easy to follow and engaging. Of particular interest to this reader was the familial relationships between Ali, his father, and his two older siblings. Past that, Chakraborty subverts the patterns of a love triangle to tell a refreshingly realistic story of love, desire, and the dangers of under-communication.
While this book is mostly being marketing as one with a single, female narrator, the dual narrator set-up ended up being one of my favorite aspects of the storytelling. While the fierce, stubborn Nahri serves as the outsider perspective as we explore Daevabad and djinn culture, self-serious scholar Ali is the insider, humanizing the hierarchy while never apologizing for its injustice. Ali is endlessly struggling to understand his own privilege and to balance exercising his own power with the love he has for his powerful family.
Both characters are young (this book walks the line between young adult and adult), which makes the mistakes they make and the eventual lessons they learn all the more believable. These are two characters who try to do their best, but who are only human, so to speak, in their naivete.
Ultimately, they must both choose between doing what they suspect is right and doing what they know is best for the people they love and/or themselves. It is this balance of the political and the personal and, more importantly, the recognition that the two are inextricably intertwined that Charaborty does best.
Chakraborty is also an admirable action scene writer, infusing complex fight scenes with character and world-building. Check out this excerpt, courtesy of Tor, which sees Ali fighting Dara, an extremely powerful djinn with a connection to Nahri:
The Afshin’s [Dara] calm was gone and with it, much of the reserve Ali now realized the other man had been showing. He was actually an even better fighter than he’d let on.
But the zulfiqar was a Geziri weapon, and Ali would be damned if some Daeva butcher was going to beat him with it. He let the Afshin pursue him across the training room, their fiery blades clashing and sizzling. Though he was taller than Darayavahoush, the other man was probably twice his bulk, and he was hoping his youth and agility would eventually turn the duel in his favor.
And yet that didn’t appear to be happening. Ali dodged blow after blow, becoming increasingly exhausted—and a little afraid. As he blocked another charge, he caught sight of a khanjar glinting on a sunny window shelf across the room. The dagger peeked out among a pile of random supplies—the training room was notoriously messy, overseen by a kindly yet absentminded old Geziri warrior no one had the heart to replace.
An idea sparked in Ali’s head. As they fought, he started letting his fatigue show—along with his fear. He wasn’t acting, and he could see a glimmer of triumph in the Afshin’s eyes. He was clearly enjoying the opportunity to put the stupid young son of a hated enemy in his place.
Darayavahoush’s forceful blows shook his entire body, but Ali kept his zulfiqar up as the Afshin followed his lead toward the windows. Their fiery blades hissed against each other as Ali was pushed hard against the glass. The Afshin smiled. Behind his head, the torches flared and danced against the wall like they’d been doused in oil.
Ali abruptly let go of his zulfiqar.
He snatched the khanjar and dropped to the ground as Darayavahoush stumbled. Ali rolled to his feet and was on the Afshin before the other man recovered. He pressed the dagger to his throat, breathing hard, but went no further. “Are we done?”
The Afshin spat. “Go to hell, sand fly.”
The City of Brass is filled with action-packed, character-driven scenes like this one. Chakraborty packs an incredible amount of storytelling information into every page. This makes for a rich reading experience, but, remarkably, never a tiring one.
The City of Brass can drag a bit at the beginning; Nahri doesn’t make it to Daevebad until a fifth of the way into the book. As previously stated, the rules and organization of this world can become overwhelming at points. It won’t cause you to disengage with the story, but it might make you frustrated that you don’t understand the world better — a good sign as far as “issues” go.
The Daevabad Trilogy will continue with The Kingdom of Copper. In the mean time, I highly recommend diving into the world of The City of Brass. Chakraborty’s debut is a rich historical fantasy world which works as escapist fiction, while also drawing topical parallels to our current sociopolitical situation.
Come for the lush fantasy setting, stay for the ways in which Chakraborty smartly subverts everything from the YA love triangle to the glorification of royalty to the idea that historical fantasy can only take place in settings that look like medieval England with people who only look like Sean Bean.