The City of Brass

A lot has been said about S.A. Chakraborty's The City of Brass, especially within YA circles. The publisher is marketing this book and its sequel as adult fantasy, yet for better or worse everything is pretty much YA. Much of the noise has to do with the fact that a female Muslim author is writing an Islamic fantasy story set in a Middle Eastern universe and featuring a supposedly strong female lead character. Or so it is said.

Like many readers, I had high hopes for this one. Especially given the push it was receiving from Harper Voyager. But in the end, The City of Brass suffered from too many shortcomings to be a truly enjoyable read. Indeed, it never quite delivered the goods and turned out to be just an extremely long introduction. I'm intrigued enough to want to give the sequel, Kingdom of Copper, a shot. Yet on its own, this first installment was a little disappointing.

Here's the blurb:

Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of eighteenth-century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trades she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, and a mysterious gift for healing—are all tricks, both the means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles and a reliable way to survive.

But when Nahri accidentally summons Dara, an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior, to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to reconsider her beliefs. For Dara tells Nahri an extraordinary 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 birds of prey are more than what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass—a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.

In Daevabad, within gilded brass walls laced with enchantments and behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments run deep. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, her arrival threatens to ignite a war that has been simmering for centuries.

Spurning Dara’s warning of the treachery surrounding her, she embarks on a hesitant friendship with Alizayd, an idealistic prince who dreams of revolutionizing his father’s corrupt regime. All too soon, Nahri 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 to be careful what you wish for . . .

The worldbuilding is probably my favorite facet of this novel. Some readers have raved about how dense and complex it is. Let's be honest, though. Compared to Steven Erikson, R. Scott Bakker, or even Bradley P. Beaulieu's worlds, this Middle Eastern setting doesn't echo with the sort of depth those other writers managed to achieve in their respective series. Nevertheless, Chakraborty gave life to her environment and the imagery is often arresting. She has an eye for detail and it shows in her depiction of the various locales visited throughout the book.

My main gripe with The City of Brass is that the Islamic aspect of the tale felt totally unnecessary. Elements of the faith are used as mere window dressing and play very little role in the actual plot. As was the case with Saladin Ahmed's debut, I know that it's unfair to expect Muslim authors to imbue their creations with aspects of their faith in a way that non-Muslim writers simply cannot fathom. And yet, perusing other online reviews, there are a lot of Muslim readers who felt the same way. Understandably, they are wondering what's the point of finally having an Islamic fantasy series published and not feel represented? When all is said and done, S.A. Chakraborty's Middle Eastern setting is no different than any other created by Western SFF authors of other religious backgrounds. Personally, I was expecting more. Something more profound, something that would have taught me things about Islam, something that would have imbued this tale with a special something not found in other fantasy works out there. Alas, it was not to be and it did kill this book for me. To a certain extent at least.

The characterization can also be particularly weak. Although one must keep in mind that I was expecting an adult fantasy novel, not a YA book. So your mileage may vary in that regard. Still, I found Nahri to be quite dumb on several occasions. Extremely stubborn, she is often an accident waiting to happen. Which makes it difficult to root for her. Every time you believe there has been some character growth on her part, something happens to make her revert to an impulsive dumbass adolescent girl. Alizayd, the supposed religious nutjob with a good heart, is a dead end for the better part of the story. A tool from the beginning, he slowly grows into a more interesting protagonist. Time will tell if he can truly come into his own in the sequel. Dara is by far the most intriguing character of the novel and discovering more about his fascinating back story was quite a treat. The juvenile love triangle was poorly executed, however, and gave the whole thing a decidedly corny feeling. No one comprising the supporting cast in Daevabad proved to be memorable, which is why, overall, the characterization was nothing to write home about.

Sadly, The City of Brass is riddled with pacing issues. This lack of rhythm is mostly due to the fact that the novel is little more than an overlong introduction set to present the characters and the setting. What little of the plot there is gradually comes together at a snail's pace, and it takes a mighty long time for things to start making a bit of sense. Thankfully, Chakraborty suddenly shifts gears near the end and delivers an exciting ending. Trouble is, it's a case of too little, too late, and it couldn't save this book.

Needless to say, S.A. Chakraborty's The City of Brass failed to wow me the way I expected it to. And yet, the author closed the show with aplomb. And with the revelations about Nahri and Dara, as well as the unexpected resolution of Alizayd's plotline, inexplicably something makes me want to discover what happens next. Time will tell if Chakraborty was able to elevate her game, or if the Daevabad trilogy is nothing more than Middle Eastern-flavored YA fare.

The final verdict: 7/10

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