Every once in a while, I come across a book I don’t want to put down. City Of Brass, the debut novel from American speculative fiction writer and history buff Shannon A. Chakraborty, is one such book.
I was up well beyond my bedtime, urgently reading paragraph after paragraph to take me to a chapter’s end – and then starting on the next page despite thinking, OK that’s enough for tonight, no more reading – until I was done with the book within a day.
City Of Brass is more than a page-turning marvel. It is articulate, involving, stunning and magical; everything you want in a fantasy novel and then some.
Chakraborty’s prose is poetic, lyrical and evocative. Her storytelling is sublime and her mystery-building prowess almost Agatha Christie-esque. Even the subtlest of foreshadowing delivers stunning revelations by the book’s end.
City Of Brass begins in 18th century Cairo. Napoleon’s armies have driven out the Turks, and in the hot, cluttered back alleys of the bustling city we meet Nahri, a woman of considerable magical skill in the healing arts.
Nahri is a con artist and a thief. She’s been on the streets for as long as she can remember. As a child, she was thrown out of orphanages for being able to predict which child would die.
But more than just sensing illness, Nahri can cure most diseases. And apart from her restorative magic, she can understand and speak any language once she’s heard it.
When we’re introduced to Nahri, she is fleecing unsuspecting wealthy marks. In one ceremony where Nahri claims she will cleanse a girl of a spirit possession, she instead unwittingly summons a warrior djinn named Dara to her side.
This bit of spell-casting also brings forth an ifrit (the most dangerous type of djinn) that promptly sends an army of ghouls to kill Nahri.
Dara wants to take Nahri to the safest place he knows, Daevabad, the city of the djinn where a magical defensive veil will protect her from the ifrit. It’s also in Daevabad where Ali, the son of King Ghassan, is training to be a commander for his older brother and heir to the throne, Mutadhir.
In Daevabad, Nahri undergoes several changes. For one thing, after feeling like an outsider her entire life, living among the djinn where her powers don’t make her an oddity, Nahri starts to feel at home for the first time.
While djinn don’t get sick in the usual sense, they do need a healer to take care of all sorts of magical ailments. King Ghassan, a ruthless ruler looking to cement his family’s claim to the throne, wants to arrange a marriage between Nahri and his eldest son Mutadhir. Yet Nahri is quite taken with Ali, the younger prince who’s fascinated by the human world.
With echoes of current Middle Eastern politics, this fantastical take on power plays and the people caught up in them is nothing short of riveting.
To build Nahri’s world correctly, Chakraborty worked with the American University of Cairo to get her historic facts right. She builds a rich and wondrous kingdom by weaving in myths, legends and supernatural creatures from across the Middle East, all of which will keep you wanting more.
Chakraborty, originally from New Jersey and now living in Queens, New York City, is a convert to Islam, something that has significantly influenced her work. Her love of Mughal portraiture and Omani history, as mentioned on her website, sachakraborty.com, is also obvious in her writing.
City Of Brass is an absolute gem, with politics and complex histories that prove it is the victors who write history. At a time when television is broadcasting entire series for viewers to binge on, my one complaint about Chakraborty’s planned Daevabad trilogy is that only one book has been published.
I want the rest of this tale in my hands right now!
City Of Brass
Author: SA Chakraborty
Publisher: Harper Voyager, young adult fantasy