The City of Brass by SA Chakraborty Review: Middle Eastern Historical Fantasy With Ferocious Magic and Cunning Characters

November 22, 2017 by Aila J. | 4 stars, ARC Reviews, Books, Reviews

The City of Brass by SA Chakraborty Review: Middle Eastern Historical Fantasy With Ferocious Magic and Cunning CharactersThe City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
Published by Harper Voyager on November 14th 2017
Source: Publisher, Edelweiss
Genres: Fantasy & Magic, Own Voices, Diversity, Romance, Action & Adventure
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Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of 18th century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles.

But when Nahri accidentally summons an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to accept that the magical world she thought only existed in childhood stories is real. For the warrior tells her a new tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire, and rivers where the mythical marid sleep; past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises, and mountains where the circling hawks are not what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass?a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.

In that city, behind gilded brass walls laced with enchantments, behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments are simmering. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, she learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences.

After all, there is a reason they say be careful what you wish for . . .

Step into a world of sand and grit from characters both cunning and mischievous in this book. The City of Brass brings Middle Eastern folklore to life as Chakraborty transports readers from the dusty streets of Cairo, Egypt, to the grandiose and magical land of Daevabad. This historical fantasy was a fun-packed ride from start to finish. Although the plot lagged a bit towards the latter half of the book (it is rather thick), the story itself is constantly moving like the wind blowing on sand dunes – whether from a journey or dialogue or character growth. The author writes extremely multifaceted characters who all have their own plans in mind, as well as a complex and byzantine world that took me a bit of time to get used to. Overall, I’m very excited for the sequel and the new places and characters that Chakraborty will introduce to use next.

The book switches between the third person limited perspectives of Nahri, a cunning thief and con artist with mysterious powers, and Prince Aliyzad al Qahtani, or Ali, who is a soldier prince in the legendary city of Daevabad, where djinn reside. Both characters are extremely different and well-developed. While Nahri is pragmatic and not hesitant to exploit, steal, or bargain to her advantage, Ali is a devout and religious man who has serious prejudice and naivete, growing up in a sheltered lifestyle. I actually enjoyed both points of views, although Nahri was a bit more interesting due to the adventure and discoveries she embarks on. Each chapter was also pretty long, so there was never an interrupt in the flow of the story and I never found myself wishing one would end to get to the other. There’s also cutting dialogue and lots of wit battles, making the dialogue as well as character interactions fun to read about.

‘You’re some kind of thief then?
‘That’s a very narrow-minded way of looking at it. I prefer to think of myself as a merchant of delicate tasks.’
‘That doesn’t make you any less a criminal.’

There are a huge cast of other characters that appear in the world, as well as an elaborate background to everything going on. It is obvious that the author delves into deep research to embellish her story. From the bejeweled description of palace settings to the notes on yummy food and character clothes, Chakraborty creates a totally immersive setting that will sweep readers off their feet (much like a magical carpet). I cannot say anything about the representation of the characters as that as not my lane, but this book is #ownvoices by a Muslim author (I will link reviews from Middle Eastern readers at the end of this!). I loved seeing the small details such as prayers the characters did and beliefs they shared, creating an even more in-depth world that just consumed my reading. Chakraborty not only explores the court intricacies and prejudice between different species, but also schisms between the djinn themselves. Within the djinn are six different groups who have unique powers and strained relationships between some of them. Even more within these groups – it gets pretty complicated, like I said – are the shafit, who are half-djinn and half-human. Among these, the book also introduces marid, elementals of water, and pesi, elementals of air. There is a lot of information and background on the book, but I think the author did a good job in weaving it all together in a comfortable way and flow for the reader. We learn as Nahri learns, as well as the particulars of the court through Ali’s POV.

I admit, this did take some time and bogged down a bit of the pace and adventure for me between understanding the difference between Daeva and djinn, and the political situation going on. But eventually I got the hang of it and it just added another facet to the story. During a con, Nahri accidentally summons a very irate djinn warrior who is as mysterious as the rest of the djinn world to her. When she’s suddenly attacked by an ifrit, who used to be djinn but rejected Suleiman, the djinn warrior takes her on a journey to Daevabad, the city of brass… the place where djinn and shafit reside.

The haughty daeva warrior and scheming human thief were not the most natural of pairings…

The interactions between Nahri and Dara, the warrior, are witty and informative. There’s a slow burn romance between the two and is very light – the story has more of a focus on exploring the world and political climate. Either way, I really enjoyed it and am hoping to see more in the next book. Dara’s very reticent with his past and what he’s gone through, but very protective of Nahri. I love Nahri’s straight-forwardness and her blunt ways. Her thieving abilities are very evident, as well as her interesting mysterious healing abilities. I enjoyed learning beside her about the world and creatures beyond humankind and the history that encompasses them.

Ali’s perspective, on the other hand, highlights a sheltered life with prejudice and good swordsmanship. The complex history of the djinn places Ali and his Qahtani royal family square on one side of an age-old conflict, and Nahri and Dara on the other side. The thing about these “sides” is that they’re very complicated and three-dimensional. There is no exact right or wrong, good or bad side. Each of them have their own justifications on what happened, creating a messy and distorted view of their history – although what kind of history isn’t messy? Ali is caught between helping out the shafit radicals in including more rights for them in the law, and his own family’s position in keeping them in line. He learns a lot in the book about his privilege and is in an extremely conflicting position – between rebels and royalty. Despite his naivete, I found his character very interesting as he struggled to find a place for himself as the second son of the king.

‘To keep walking a path between loyalty to your family and loyalty to what you know is right. One of these days, you’re going to have to make a choice.’

To give a bit more background for readers: djinn are separated into six groups, mostly based on location. They range from about the western African region to eastern Asia. Nahri is around twenty years old and Ali is eighteen. Despite the characters’ ages, I think this book would still appeal to Young Adult readers, as they go through much growth in the book. I love how flawed they were and enjoyed following their frustration in the situation they get caught in, as well as how they handled their way out. They become good friends as well, so it’ll be interesting to see how that relationship progresses after the events of this book.

The only part of the read where I was left befuddled is the climax, which was certainly interesting and twisty but also a bit unfulfilling. I feel as if some characters’ actions were out of character and atypical, especially considering their previous actions. Much of the climax became bewildering when such actions and twists came up, making it a bit messy for me. I do think these actions were all for the benefit of the plot heading a certain way, although I don’t really mind since it’s keeping the story moving.

The City of Brass is full of dazzling, ferocious magic and three-dimensional characters that are constantly scheming and full of deception. It’s a large book, but everything that happens is pretty important – from the physical journeys to the emotional ones intrinsically. Readers get introduced to a myriad of legendary creatures, legends, and stories. I really can’t wait for the second book, especially as many questions readers have from the beginning of the book are still not answered yet. There’s action, intrigue, plenty of adventure, cunning characters, and romances. And honestly, what more can you want from an immersive Middle Eastern fantasy that captures both history and legend in a captivating way?

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Thank you HarperCollins and Edelweiss for sending a review copy! 

City of Brass is available from Australian bookstores for $35.00 AUD and American bookstores for $18.99

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Aila is a young adult reader who loves to transport herself to new dimensions through reading. She's currently an undergraduate student at university in the US. Let's talk about our obsessions on Twitter @aila_1woaa!

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6 responses to “The City of Brass by SA Chakraborty Review: Middle Eastern Historical Fantasy With Ferocious Magic and Cunning Characters

  1. I’m glad you loved this Aila! Though I am a bit hesitant about the complexity of this story, BUT NEVERTHELESS, still very excited to read and get to it! Plus the setting seems amazing, and just all the research and details put into this. I think it’s definitely one of my most anticipated of 2017 (or what’s left of it haha)
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