Book Review: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

This debut fantasy novel is appealing, in part because it draws on legends of the Arab world for its magic

<i>The City of Brass</i> by S.A. Chakraborty

At its best, the fantasy genre has always been about using the imagination to wrap our minds around the world we actually live in. That's what makes The City of Brass, a debut novel from S.A. Chakraborty, such a fascinating and worthwhile read.

The complicated and often violent story of Nahri, a part-human, part-djinni woman whisked from her life as a con artist on the streets of 18th century Cairo, builds a world that's got a lot in common with other contemporary fantasy. A young woman discovers the reason behind her secret powers and her unknown parentage. She enters a world of intrigue and peril. She develops romantic feelings for the powerful male figure who rescues her.

The City of Brass also splits off in new directions. Authors of English-language fantasies (note the distinction) have historically drawn their creatures from the mythologies of western Europe: elves, faeries, dragons, and the like. Chakraborty instead pulls from the legends of the Arab world and the surrounding regions. Most of the characters are djinni, creatures of fire, who live in the mythical city of Daevabad. The djinni are separated into tribes like the Ayaanle and the Geziri. Other creatures include the marid and the ifrit, and ...

Whoops. Chakraborty just fell into the trap of speculative fiction writers everywhere, by making a world so complex that you need to bookmark the glossary.

That aside, the central story of Nahri and her confused feelings for the handsome and morally compromised djinni Dara is appealing. The politics of Daevabad, its heavy-handed royal family, and the Tanzeem insurgency bring to mind the chaos of trying to reform a kingdom built of different factions. If you needed a reminder that the Muslim world is as diverse and accomplished and fractious as any other, The City of Brass ought to do it.

Humanity has always used tales of gods and monsters to better understand the world as it is. The first of a projected trilogy, The City of Brass offers a different vantage point from which to consider the extremes of human drama.

The City of Brass

by S.A. Chakraborty
Harper Voyager, 544 pp., $25.99

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