The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty is the first instalment in an #OwnVoices Islamic adult epic fantasy trilogy that I had no idea I desperately needed with every fibre of my being until I finally sat down and read it. I credit my obsession entirely to my mate Aimal because she yelled about this book so much (in a delightful way) that I couldn’t hold off on reading it any longer. The Daevabad Trilogy is officially my favourite fantasy series of all-time, which says a lost considering that the third book hasn’t even been released yet.
The City of Brass follows a young orphan woman named Nahri. She has special healing abilities and resorts to petty thievery on occasion in order to survive in the searing city of Cairo, Egypt. One evening while helping a local lady with exorcising a little girl, a practise that Nahri doesn’t completely believe in, she accidentally summons a powerful being named Dara. Upon arriving, he questions Nahri for her actions. As they argue, they suddenly find themselves being pursued by ifrit. Dara decides that the best way to flee the ifrit is to journey to the grand city of Daevabad where he believes many questions about Nahri’s past can be answered. Reluctantly, Nahri acquiesces to the trip, at the very least until she can evade both the ifrit and Dara completely.
This is a really difficult review for me to write because of how many things I want to say about it, but not having a decent of way of conveying my thoughts. All of the words turn into excited glees and screams of passion. To be completely blunt, I never expected to like this book. SO many people were raving about it with such intensity that somewhere in my heart I had already made the decision that it was too hyped for me. After consuming it slowly so that I could savour each and every page of it, I also ended up eating those thoughts. I finally understand why it’s so damned loved. It is bloody brilliant.
There are three key elements to The City of Brass that make it so damn extraordinary. The first is the world-building. Second, we have the cast of characters, for which there are quite a few. Lastly, the sorrows of having an imperfect or severely traumatising past. All these elements come together to paint an incredibly multi-layered story about cultural identity and fighting oppression, my two favourite themes in fantasy narratives, especially when viewed with an intellectually critical light.
Greatness takes time, Banu Nahida. Often the mightiest things have the humblest beginnings.”
The world that has been crafted is incredibly vast and scorchingly sumptuous. Rather than getting walls of text that tell us what to imagine, I felt almost all of my senses being tickled with the way that the author builds the outskirts of Egypt and Daevabad together. The fragrance of food, nature, sweaty djinn dudes, and mouth-watering teas, tossed together with the arid atmosphere of the desert and the unrelenting wrath of the sun, combined with sounds of creatures creeping closer or a sharp blade shredding flesh and causing blood to splatter across the sands—all of these elements wrapped me up in this stupendously atmospheric setting. There were so many times when I closed the book for the night, I physically felt a jolt of disorientation because I had to disentangle myself from Daevabad and its people, or Nahri and Dara’s wild pursuers.
Speaking of Nahri and Dara, and also a third party who joins in later known as Alizayd, these characters are so brilliantly complex and multi-dimensional. There are many pieces to the mosaics that compose their personalities that it can be extremely difficult to love or hate them with a severely black-and-white lens. Nahri learned to survive in a way that’s a bit less than honourable. However, as a lonely kid with no parents and no one there to really raise her, she did what she had to in order to work towards a better life for herself. Dara has an incredibly fucked-up past, but not all of what happened can be blamed on him one hundred percent. His character is an excellent example of how oppressors keep their hands clean of blood and death and being the scourge of inhumanity all for the sake of independence or freedom, which in a way is a whole different sort of a façade. Alizayd shows us that some people can be utterly hopeless because they are forced to exist in walls so tightly pushed together that it’s difficult to blink on one’s own, let alone breathe clearly. Because there are so many marvellous imperfections that guide the way these folx interact with others and how they react or behave in stressful situations (like being confronted with stuff that goes against their beliefs), it lays down the perfect foundation from which their development can flourish. Who they are in book one ends up being a far cry from who they become in book two, and probably also book three. That level of character craftsmanship is nothing short of brilliant.
Lastly, traumatising histories, a running theme not only with the cast members but also with the grand city. While the history of what has happened in the city of Daevabad is briefly discussed or mentioned in The City of Brass, we learn enough to understand that it is a very dirty and dark one. There distinct races and mixed ethnicity people living in the city, with separate beliefs and values, and due to the nature of the royal family, this creates an abundance of discord and political strife. Political intrigue is a fucking drug for my soul when I’m reading fantasy, and The Daevabad Trilogy has some of the very best around for the genre. The political ecosystem of The City of Brass is ripe with tension, uncertainties, inequalities, and corruption, traits that help the narrative to become wholly irresistible and brimming with suspense.
Some other characteristics that help make The City of Brass a phenomenal ride include the stunning representation of Islamic culture and practises, as well as the diversity amid people who practise it, side characters that aren’t just fluffer filling but genuine and just as deep as the main players, a female lead character who is fiercely independent, magical creatures that are as wondrous as they are frightening, a slow-burn romance that gets underneath the skin and penetrates one’s very bones, and a jaw-dropping finale that shocks the body and mind with incredible emotion.
All in all, The City of Brass was an exceptional introduction to an unforgivingly culturally vibrant fantasy narrative that has its own beginning, middle, and end while supporting the overarching plot. It’s pacing can be a bit gradual, yet it’s also comfortable and allows for readers to savour each moment carefully (honestly, it’s one of the best ways to enjoy it). There is an abundance of characters to make you question what you think you know about right and wrong as black-and-white ideals, a web of political manoeuvring combined with a tapestry of emotions and atmospheres, and just a remarkable feat of writing all-across the bloody board.
5 cups o’ hibiscus tea outta 5!