Official Summary: 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 . . .
My Thoughts: If your book promises a con woman as the protagonist, there’s a 95% chance I’ll pick it up. Unfortunately, time and time again, promises of such a lady have been squandered and crushed. So it was with a mix of eagerness and trepidation that I picked up this book. Not only does it promise a con woman as its central character, but it promises a deeply intriguing plotline and rich world-building. This book was either ambitious enough to work or was cashing a check it couldn’t afford. Luckily, it was emphatically the former.
Everything about this book works and works well. The characters are well-developed and deeply flawed, the plot is interesting and sensible, and the world-building is remarkable. Each page sucks you in and paints a vivid picture of a city made of brass and a world full of djinn. Every day I eagerly anticipated getting to read a little bit more, uncovering secrets and watching tangled webs weave. It’s an impactful tale, one that keeps you guessing and has you on the edge of your seat. Questions beget answers which beget more questions. Following Nahri, Dara, and Ali made me wish I could enter this exquisitely complex world of Daevabad.
If you’ve followed my blog for any period of time, you know characters are the most important thing to me in any story. This novel does not disappoint. Nahri is a remarkably unique character, a self-serving con woman just trying to survive. As she becomes swept up into the politics of the djinn, shafit, and daeva, she is forced to face the person she has become and who she could be. She’s clever and conniving, but impulsive when it comes to someone she cares about. Oftentimes, her healer nature is at war with her selfish nature. Her development is powerful to watch, especially as she fights to control her own destiny among countless men who want to decide it for her.
Dara is a somewhat more mysterious figure, slow to open up and yet utterly devoted to Nahri. And, while there are sparks that fly between the two, I don’t mean romantically. Dara is an ancient warrior, one with stringent values and ideals that he aims to preserve in Nahri. He’s a god-like fighter, able to take on many opponents at once. Yet he’s not invincible— his past as a slave haunts him, a past as mysterious and terrible to him as anyone. But he’s not all brood and no joy. He’s arrogant and brash, yet willing to joke and laugh. His development as a character is in many ways the most frightening, as he takes the path of most resistance.
However, the character that I was surprised to grow to love as much as I do is Prince Alizayd, Ali for short. He begins the tale a deeply religious young man, a trait that always rubs me the wrong way. However, what begins as an annoying central feature to his character (which honestly has more to do with personal bias than anything) soon becomes simply his guiding light. Ali grew on me quickly as a lost young man who just wants to do what’s right. Trained as a warrior, Ali’s loyalty is torn between his family and the shafit (a race of half-blooded djinn who are deeply discriminated against) he’s secretly been helping. He’s also profoundly naïve, often too quick to trust or hate. He loves books and is especially gifted in economics. His inner struggle parallels Nahri’s in that they each have two warring sides of themselves they must reconcile. His story, ultimately, is the most devastating. Nahri’s, meanwhile, still holds a grain of hope.
The side characters are also intriguing, each contributing to the web of conflict in their own way. Nisreen is Nahri’s teacher, a gifted healer in her own right. She guides Nahri not only in the healing arts, but in the ways of the daeva. Her desire to fight for the greater good manifests itself in how she pushes Nahri. Muntadhir is the crown prince, or emir, and Ali’s elder brother. He has a reputation as a rake and a party boy, and yet he proves more than once that he’s far shrewder than he’s given credit for. He’s also in a secret relationship with his childhood friend Jamshid, a relationship of which Ali is woefully oblivious. King Ghassan is the most politically shrewd, always there to throw a curveball or make a difficult call for the sake of Daevabad. So many fascinating characters fill up the tapestry that is The City of Brass, I could spend all day merely listing them. But instead, I’ll discuss the relationships.
As I implied, Nahri and Dara form a hot and heavy sort of relationship. While they do fall in love, situations are complex and they never actually get together. Yet their emotions are palpable. They simultaneously have the best banter and the headiest declarations of love. I was deeply engrossed in the development of this pair. In many ways, I still am. However, due to certain complications, I don’t know that I can remain their champion. And then there’s the relationship between Nahri and Ali. But don’t worry— this is not a love triangle (yes, I could hear your groan from here). While the two ostensibly sit on opposing sides, they form a remarkably pure friendship. They enjoy a lot of the same subjects and slowly grow to influence each other greatly. It’s a sweet friendship I was happy to find myself rooting for.
Out of all the relationships, these two are the most prominent in the story. However, many other relationships help drive the story. The relationship Nahri has with Nisreen is that of a mentor/mentee; Ali and Muntadhir have a strong fraternal bond; Ghassan’s relationship with his son Ali is a determining factor for many major plot points. So much of this book relies on the relationships between characters and how said relationships influence character choices.
And this brings me to the plot, woven almost like a chess match. Much of the conflict in this book is politically based, meaning it relies on characters being both proactive and reactive. And the political intrigue had me hooked. I love books based around the complicated dance of power and public perception. Each sneaky maneuver had my heart pounding. Every overt statement had my eyes open wide. And the plot twists? They had me on the floor. This plot is fake-like-it’s-gonna-hit-you-in-the-crotch-then-BAM-throat-punch fantastic.
However, what really impressed me more than anything was the mind-bogglingly good world-building. The social structure of Daevabad is intricate, yet surprisingly easy to follow. The main players are the djinn, the daeva, the shafit, and the elusive Tanzeem (a so-called “terrorist” organization). Each race has their strengths and weaknesses, specialties and limits. The rules and who’s who of this world are revealed organically, rarely coming close to an info dump. When I think about this book today, I’m left thinking about the rich, vibrant mosaic this novel pieced together.
This novel is Own Voices, Chakraborty of Middle-Eastern descent (I could not find a record of precisely where, only that she’s from New York). Nahri is explicitly from Cairo (albeit in the 18th Century), where we start our story. Islam heavily influences the story. It also takes influence from Arabic and Persian works. Chakraborty also notes taking inspiration from Mughal history. As for the same-sex relationship I mentioned earlier, don’t get too excited. Though their love for each other is made very obvious, it is nowhere near the forefront of the story. It’s there and will possibly become more significant in the sequel, but it is not focused on. Regardless, if you’re looking for a diverse read, put this one at the top of your list.
I had expected to like this book— or rather, I had hoped I would. And in the end, that hope paid off. In fact, this book is my highest-rated book of the year so far. The characters are well-developed, the plot is intriguing, and the world-building is phenomenal. If this is what Chakraborty’s writing is like in her debut, I can’t imagine what kind of excellence her follow-up will have in store. “Arabian Nights” is shaking in its boots.
My Rating: 5/5
Edit: I would like to make a quick correction. I said this movie is Own Voices, and it is. However, Chakraborty is not Egyptian or Middle Eastern. She is not a person of color at all. However, she did convert to Islam about fifteen years ago when she married her husband and has practiced the faith since.