Crouched like a cat over the smouldering remains of a small fire—the sharp smell of burnt green wood filling the air—the djinn stared at her with a sort of wary curiosity in his bright green eyes.”
The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty is the first book in an #OwnVoices Islamic epic fantasy series called The Daevabad Trilogy. The remarkable story of Nahri, Dara, and Alizayd begins here and it is quite life-changing, to say the least. Nahri is an orphaned woman that has spent her entire life in the city of Cairo. Gifted with extraordinary healing abilities, she agrees to help a local lady with exorcising an evil spirit from a little girl, a practise that Nahri does not completely believe in. In the process, she accidentally summons a great and powerful being named Dara. With his arrival, he brings with him myriad questions and vengeful ifrit that quickly begin to pursue them. The mysterious Dara realises the safest way to flee the dark creatures hunting them is to travel to the grand city of Daevabad, where Nahri may finally receive answers about her parents and clouded past.
The City of Brass crafts three elements of fantasy storytelling with absolute brilliance and they include intricately created and awe-inspiring settings, an introduction to characters dappled with imperfect moralities, and a distinct story within the overarching narrative, which helps the book feel complete upon its finale while still leaving the reader with intense anticipation of the next volume.
The world-building is phenomenal and breath-takingly detailed without falling victim to the commonality of info-dumping. Rather than receiving walls of boring textual information telling the reader what to imagine or feel, we are instead left to experience the surroundings ourselves. The outskirts of Egypt and Daevabad are threaded together in such a fashion that it is difficult to believe it is a work of fiction. The fragrances of food, fauna and flora, smoky and sweaty Djinns, mouth-watering teas, and scrumptious delights when combined with the rough and arid atmospheres of the desert and the beating heat of the sun, truly transports the reader to a whole new universe.
A chilly breeze swept through the winding streets, past intricately tiled bathhouses and the thick doors protecting fire temples whose alters had burned for millennia, bringing the smell of damp earth and tree sap from the thickly forested mountains that surrounded the island. It was the type of morning that sent most djinn scurrying indoors like cats fleeing in rain, back to beds of smoky silk brocade and warm mates, burning away the hours until the sun reemerged hot and proper to scald the city to life.”
We are introduced to the three main characters—Nahri, Dara, and Alizayd—with a basic understanding of their beliefs, morals, and values; aspects that shall be nurtured and expounded upon in the next two books, giving way to some of the most remarkable character development that I have read in years. Nahri is fiercely independent and defends her right to that individuality as much as she can, which means asking questions that others may not take a keen appreciation of. Dara has years of trauma and subjugation to contend with, which blind him to the fallacies of the beliefs that grew out these experiences. Alizayd is a sheltered, privileged young man who has no idea how the world works outside of the gold-glistening walls of entitlement and obeyance. Together they formulate a complex web of emotions and intellectual discourse of the fine lines between right and wrong, moral and immoral that play the part of plot progression as their individual journeys all collide towards the end.
Even though there is an overarching plot in The City of Brass that shall be continued onwards through to The Kingdom of Copper and then The Empire of Gold, the book has a tale that is unique to it. For example, Dara and Nahri’s journey is a necessary part of the narrative that not only creates the foundation for their relationship and bond, but also for the events that occur much later on. However, even though it plays such an impactful role for the series as a whole, conflicts that arise during their journey is mostly resolved by the end. When there is a series with multiple instalments, it becomes critical to have a need for each respective segment, otherwise everything blurs together and each book can feel like filler fluff, which is the mark of poor writing. It should be there to help develop and promote growth of a narrative, not to spread it out for the sake of doing so; something Chakraborty executes splendidly well.
For a first book in a trilogy, The City of Brass is almost flawless. It does everything that a first book should do, and it does it well, with excellent writing, pacing, world-building and fallible characters that shall lay down the groundwork for the next part of this grand adventure. It was a supreme honour being able to read such a masterful work of culturally-rich fantasy storytelling.
I highly recommend this to anyone that is in the market for an adult fantasy book that is beautifully diverse and fantastically constructed in just about every way imaginable.