In the markets of eighteenth century Cairo, thieves, tricksters, con artists and outcasts eke out a living swindling rich nobles and foreign invaders alike.
But alongside this new world, the old stories linger. Tales of djinn and spirits, of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert – full of enchantment, desire and riches – where magic pours down every street, hanging in the air like dust.
Many wish their lives could be filled with wonder, but not Nahri. She knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about her. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes…
Be careful what you wish for.
City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty is a rich and imaginative fantasy that weaves elements of Islamic folklore with the political machinations of monarchy to create a vivid world filled with tension – of both the romantic and warmongering kind.
The story starts with Nahri, an orphan surviving via the means of the age-old con (fake healings, telling the future, the occasional exorcism, etc) who stumbles from the life she had known as just another Cairo trickster into the magical world of the djinn, beings born of fire who live, for the most part, in a magical land hidden from the human world by, you guessed it, more magic. This dangerous new world of flying carpets, flesh-eating ghouls and terrifying demon-djinn known as ifrit – regular djinn are sexy, ifrit decidedly not so. From what I gather there are a lot of claws and fangs happening – might hold the keys to Nahri’s mysterious past, if she can only get her new sexy djinn friend Dara to answer any of her questions.
I clicked with Nahri right away. A survivor well versed in thinking on her feet, she’s always got a witty retort and a means to make a buck tucked in her back pocket. She has an unusual talent for diagnosing and healing, skills she’s honing with a local pharmacist, and dreams of leaving Cairo behind to seek a career in medicine – even though that’s not something women really do, where she’s from. She can also speak any language as soon as she’s heard it, which is just very cool, honestly.
On the other hand, we have Ali, the other narrator of City of Brass. The prince of Daevabad, the aforementioned hidden magical land, he took me a lot longer to warm up to. But now, two books in (I finished Kingdom of Copper a couple of weeks back), I have come to the conclusion that this was kind of the point. Ali is not an easy person to like, but as I, and Nahri, discovered, he does kinda grow on you. Ali is the kind of guy who is stubborn about all of the wrong things. He holds himself up as the one with principles and his identity is very much wrapped up in that, but the principles – if not the high and mighty attitude that comes with them – seem to melt away when they present any personal risk. Trapped by the confines of royal life and his politically and personally domineering father, there’s a sense throughout City of Brass that he isn’t a fully formed person yet, and though to start with I read him as a weak manboy I didn’t have a lot of time for, after a while his story became one I could engage with. But initially, I’m not going to lie to you, whenever the narrative flipped from what was happening with Nahri to what Ali was up to, the story massively slowed down for me.
City of Brass is, in many ways, a totally perfect book for right now. Rich and complex, Chakraborty goes deep on the many different tribes of the djinn, their histories (a lot of which are bound up in conflict) and how those have led to the balance of power we see in Daevabad now. Keeping track of what different tribes were, which tribes didn’t like other tribes and how those feelings impacted Ali and Nahri required my whole brain. It was exactly what I needed – when I picked up the book and stepped into the world of Daevabad, everything that was going on in my day fell away. There’s not much higher praise for a fantasy than that, right?
Also, the sexual tension between Nahri and Dara… It’s also a very effective distraction.