Nahri is an orphaned con artist eking out a living on the fringes of 18th century Cairo, charming rich men into fake cures for illnesses they don’t have and relieving their estates of easily-missed trinkets and baubles. She has a side line in performing fake zars, ceremonies to cure those afflicted by djinn or at least temporarily relieve their spirits — but during one such fake zar, when she improvises with the nameless language she’s known all her life, she calls down something very real. Soon she and the ancient daeva warrior Dara will be fleeing Cairo, and the ifrit hunting Nahri for her ancestry, to the city of her djinn ancestors — Daevabad, where she will be valued as the last scion of a powerful bloodline. But Dara’s welcome is likely to be a lot less warm, and Daevabad is wrapped up in intrigues in which Nahri’s abilities and ancestry will prove a linchpin, if only she can come to terms with either of them.
I really love stories about djinn. I don’t know why they hold such fascination for me, but just seeing the word in a book’s description is enough to sell me on it, so I came into The City of Brass already favourably disposed since it was so deeply rooted in that mythology. And I’ll say one thing for this book: The research and world-building is really well done, and I was riveted by the way the author writes djinn society. Daevabad has an elaborate social background split between those who identify as djinn, and have embraced Islam, and those who still consider themselves to be part of the older society of daeva and their fire-based religion. Each side is split into multiple factions, tribes, and families, all with powerful motives, and they are all shrouded in moral ambiguity, with a balance of sympathetic aims and crimes that can’t be condoned. It’s impossible to point to one side and say ‘It would clearly be best for society if they won’ — as with most of these situations in real life, a true resolution would require a lengthy and delicate balance of compromises that’s unlikely to be achieved due to the strong personalities involved — and so the politics feel rich and alive.
I can forgive the book a lot for that incredibly compelling world-building, but there is a fair bit here in need of forgiving. Initially, I really took to Nahri as a character. She’s in a dangerous position in society, an Egyptian woman alone and without a support system in a city that’s changing hands from one foreign invader to another. She’s got ambitions for herself that society wouldn’t support even for a well-bred woman, which she is not — she wants to train as a physician. And she doesn’t bow to or complain about those limitations, but instead uses the society she’s trapped by against itself to escape her circumstances.
Unfortunately, Nahri changes into a very different character as the story progresses. Her wily nature and intellectual curiosity are lost, and she becomes a constant complainer with no respect for or interest in the new religion and cultures around her, or the people who could teach her so much. The only things she’s interested in are Dara and Alizayd, a prince of the now-ruling family who are traditionally her ancestors’ enemies, whom she befriends under somewhat false circumstances.
A lot of page count is spent on Dara and Ali, who are two of the least likeable of the secondary cast. Dara is demanding and controlling, with supremacist views about daeva that ought to render him incompatible with a partially-human woman like Nahri if she had the sense she were born with, and a hankering to restart old wars. Ali is a religious zealot who goes through an awful lot, including being torn between his family duties and his ties to a rebel group with more violent aims than he realised, and manages to grow from absolutely none of it, still convinced that he and his religion are in the ultimate right and observing few shades of grey in the massively complex political situation that surrounds him. His only redeeming feature is his sympathy for the shafit, the part-daeva and part-human underclass of Daevabad society.
Debut blues afflict the pacing, which takes an extraordinarily long time to get to Daevabad and the meat of the story, and therefore necessitates a rushed ending in which it can be hard to keep track of the action during one climactic battle. I didn’t mind the slow beginning as much, because Nahri was still an appealing character to follow then, Dara was still mostly an exposition fairy delivering sermons about daeva society, and I liked watching their relationship and her understanding of their world unfold. Towards the end, however, I was having to reread a section or two in order to understand things, such as the transition of a power that I thought only one person could hold.
Despite the problems, this was a page-turner, and Chakraborty’s take on djinn is so well-conceived that I would be compelled to read on if only for that. I do agree with some of my friends who concluded that the issues are not unexpected of an ambitious debut novel, and hopefully in the sequels the author will retain tighter control of her characters and their trajectory. I would still recommend this to anyone with an interest in seeing creative and well-researched Middle Eastern fantasies, if they are willing to be patient with first novel hiccups.