The City of Brass
Spellbinding is an appropriate word to describe S. A. Chakraborty’s debut novel, The City of Brass. Mesmerizing is another. Both adjectives reflect the magical, whimsical nature of the fantasy world Chakraborty creates.
This world has magic, both white and black; monsters of tremendous size that fly through the air; djinns who can be loyal or deceitful as the occasion demands; ghouls who rise from the grave to devour the living; monsters who dwell in the water and kill both djinns and humans; flying carpets; shape-shifters; clan warfare; and a magical city hidden from human eyes.
If all the fantastic elements are not enough, there are the characters: first and foremost is Nahri, current fiction’s most likeable con artist, who makes her meager living on the streets of Cairo by palm reading, zars or ritual chants, and healing.
Nahri knows all her claims to powers beyond the ordinary are phony—except her powers of healing. Not only can she heal herself of series injuries such as broken bones, she also can diagnose her clients’ illnesses and heal them.
“Nahri could no more explain the way she healed and sensed illness than she could explain how her eyes and ears worked.”
One night Nahri is hired to perform a zar, a ceremony to cure a young girl of possession, of what kind of possession is immaterial since Nahri doesn’t believe in possession. However, she does appreciate “the basket of coins and free meal earned by the kodia, the woman who led the ceremony . . .”
Nahri sings some of zar in her native language, although she has no idea what language it was. She had never heard it spoken by anyone but herself. She inadvertently summons a warrior djinn although she is unaware of what she had done until she takes a shortcut home through one of Cairo’s cemeteries.
That’s when Dara, a djinn with extraordinary green eyes, and a slight odor of smoke, appears in a flash of light and is none too pleased about it. “Suleiman’s eye!” it roared. “I will kill whoever called me here!”
Dara recognizes Nahri as someone more than a Shafit, a half-human, half-djinn, while Nahri finds the sudden appearance of a real live djinn incomprehensible. She doesn’t believe in such things. However, he saves her from being devoured by ghouls suddenly springing from the graves around her.
Being rescued from flesh-eating ghouls by a green-eyed djinn with elongated ears and strangely luminous skin who also can command carpets to fly does not mean Nahri trusts Dara. He denies being a djinn, calling himself a Daeva. “Daeva who call themselves djinn have no respect for our people.”
Nahri has no idea what the difference between a Daeva and a djinn is, but decides Dara is in no mood to explain. On the contrary, he is more interest in Nahri’s personal history, of which she knows little, and not forthcoming about his own. He does believe that Nahri is a shafit member of the Nahids, a daeva family of healers.
Dara tells her she can’t go back to Cairo. “It’s against our law, and the ifrit are likely already tracking you. You wouldn’t last a day.”
The ifrit are seriously nasty creatures who are enemies of the djinn, but the ifrit are not the only dangers Nahri and Dana face. They are now in a fantastical world where rivers turn into serpents, giant birds have wizened faces and can speak, and hardly anything is what it seems.
Dara takes her to Daevabad, the legendary city of brass, once ruled by the Nahid family. Not only will she be safe there, but she will be welcomed as a healer even though the city is now ruled by King Ghassan ibn Khader al Qahtani, whose families defeated the Daeva clan and murdered most of Nahid.
Although King Ghassan’s clan reason for conquering the Nahid is that they were torturing and murdering the mixed blood shafit of Baevabad. But once more the shafit are being oppressed and killed, this time by King Ghassan.
Prince Ali, King Ghassan’s younger son, believes that all citizens of Daevabad should enjoy equal rights. His father disagrees. “. . . it’s time the mixed-bloods are shown their place.”
Ali, who secretly finances the Tanzeem, the underground organization of mixed-blood rebels, is caught between his loyalty to his father and his clan, and his devout beliefs in equal treatment for Daevabad’s citizens. There is also his distrust of his father’s Grand Wazir, Wajed, a member of the daeva clan. Ali doesn’t trust the daevas, but the daevas as a clan much trust the king’s clan either.
Dara and Nahri arrive in Daevabad as the simmering distrust and hatred between the purebloods of every clan and the shafits threaten’s to erupt. Then again there is the distrust between the various clans of purebloods. Add to that King Ghassan’s plan to use Nahri as a means to bind together the Daeva clan and his own, and the political ramifications of such an event only heightens Dara’s hatred for the king’s clan.
The City of Brass is a fantasy, and a superb one, but it is also an adventure that rivals the excitement of The Lord of the Rings. It is an understatement to say that it is fast-paced. One is slung from one life-threatening adventure to another with hardly time to draw breath between each.
Although some may criticize Chakraborty’s use of the vernacular rather than attempting to imitate some imagined exotic English, the use of modern language, including some slang, makes the novel accessible to more readers.
To those unfamiliar with Middle Eastern folklore and customs beyond Alladin and the Magic Lamp or A Thousand and One Nights, Chakraborty includes a glossary. Otherwise, enjoy this magical world.