The Empire of Gold (The Daevabad Trilogy #3) by S.A. Chakraborty

“How much of his life, all their lives and their histories, unravelled the more it was examined? The stories he’d grown up on were just that—stories, with more complicated roots and vastly different interpretations than he could possibly have imagined. It was unsettling, the world and truth he knew getting constantly shaken  up.”

Please note: There may be spoilers in this review for The Empire of Gold. Please read at your own discretion. Thank you.

The Empire of Gold by S.A. Chakraborty is the third and final instalment in the author’s epic adult own-voices Islamic fantasy series. The highly-anticipated conclusion follows Nahri, Alizayd al-Qahtani, and Darayavahoush e-Afshin as they must confront the consequences of their choices across the span of the first two volumes, all leading to a highly action-packed finale.

The Empire of Gold left behind a plethora of emotions, most of which can be attributed to the various shades of turmoil that is expected when a highly-anticipated novel becomes the biggest disappointment of the year. The hopes and expectations that I harboured going into the pages of this epic finale were built upon an incredible foundation of passion and awe. One half of me is overwhelmed with affection for the characters, specifically my two favourite individuals, and everything they underwent across the trilogy. Yet, the other half witnessed the potential for an exquisitely crafted finale fall so unfortunately short that I had to question whether it was even authored by the same person.

There are two main aspects to The Empire of Gold that were utterly brilliant. Firstly, there is the multi-layered character development of an anti-hero war criminal seeking redemption who epitomises the struggle between wanting to do what is right and wanting to do what is necessary for a populace, and the weaknesses that those two desires generate. Secondly, the writing continues to be jaw-droppingly meticulous and methodical in its creation of a world teeming with magic along with the consequences and devastating impacts that having such power (and losing it) can have on an entire world. Then there are the laundry list of shortcomings that cause The Empire of Gold to feel like an entirely separate project that is wholly removed from the Daevabad series, the key elements of which include a unbearably forced romance, the addition of fresh lore and more world-building that completely clashed with the pre-established universe, tightly knit political tension that unravelled horridly due to poor planning, and unnecessary character perspectives.

The most riveting parts of The Empire of Gold were comprised of Darayavahoush’s chapters. They consisted of some of the best writing that I have seen across all three volumes of the series. He feels the results of the choices that he made—along with the choices that were agonisingly thrust upon him—in such an evocatively heart-breaking manner that it is impossible not to ache with him. His thoughts, his reactions, his desire to stand up against his oppressors and partake in seeking justice and peace on behalf of the people—even if that meant aligning with individuals of whom he detested—was mesmerising. These chapters are the ones that I devoured hungrily and swiftly.

‘From a country that’s been fought over by foreigners for centuries. We die, and we bleed, and it’s a debt the powerful never repay.’

Another bit that I felt was a fascinating element to the third instalment was the journey that Nahri takes with Alizayd. Due to the events that wrapped up The Kingdom of Copper, the duo find themselves on the run, in a manner of speaking. The dualities of her trek with Ali versus the one she took with Dara worked to truly emphasise the differences in her relationships with both men, including the variations of chemistry. Nahri’s chemistry with Darayavahoush is fierce and passionate. It is blazingly romantic yet toe-curlingly deep. Her love for him is breath-takingly natural and complex. Her relationship with Ali is the complete opposite. She has a deep-rooted affection for him that is steeped in a sense of respect and admiration that she has never really felt for another person before. Their connection is caring and well developed on the intricacies of consistent and constant exchanges of intimate information, and it is wholesomely platonic.

This brings me to my first shortcoming: there is no passion between her and Ali, particularly from her side; not even an ounce of romantic adoration. The two different quests she takes with these men further cement this fact into existence. When the undercurrents of their relationship start to shift later on in the book, I felt my heart sink with dread and frustration. I never expected her to end up with Dara, especially given the nature of the political upheaval that Daevabad is drenched in, keeping their individual paths apart. However, I also never expected her to end up with anyone. Nahri is a strong and independent character that had so much going for her and for her to be thrust into a forced romantic affiliation made my whole heart tighten with outrage. I also did not understand the choice to have her become involved with all three male characters in the series. Given her intensely independent and cautious nature, it did not sit well with me or make sense within the confines of her character build.

Another character who was dastardly out-of-place was Alizayd himself. He annoyed me to no avail in the first book due to his self-righteous beliefs and closemindedness. Nevertheless, I also respected him for having such a profound sense of self and the spark of curiosity that he showed when he recognised that maybe everything he had been taught was not the truth from the mouth of God, but rather a political ploy to keep him in check. It led to brilliant development and emotional growth in The Kingdom of Copper, to the point where my admiration for him and his desire to help people via listening rather than violence skyrocketed. Yet, all of that hard work and individualistic progress was lit on fire and burned to the ground in The Empire of Gold as Ali’s entire personality revolved around his grief for losing a family member with whom he did not have a profound bond with and a woman he knows he should not pursue. His morals and obstinate belief in his faith would have prevented him for engaging with Nahri in the ways that he did. Whatever inner conflicts that he had regarding these actions were also outrageously flippant and extremely out-of-character. Almost every chapter that Ali had was a formulaic monologue of grief and lust, or some variation therein. Replacing Ali’s chapters with more perspectives from either Muntadhir or Jameshid would have given the novel a completer and more fleshed out flow. It also would have added layers of dimension that the book desperately needed.

The last bit of disappointment—yet by far not the least— in The Empire of Gold came in the form of developing the marid connections that were briefly touched upon in the first two books. The entire chunk of lore was ridiculously convoluted. While I can envision the thought processes of how this brick of a section helped move the story along, particularly with regard to its contribution to the final battle, it once again creates a humongous chasm between all the groundwork laid out for the climax in the first two books and this one, tossing that compelling intrigue completely out the door. Ultimately, these were the scenes that built a gigantic wall of discord between me and the world of Daevabad, instilling a sense of reading an entirely separate story from an entirely isolated series.

Overall, The Empire of Gold was the most disheartening book that I have read all year. I fell in love with The City of Brass and The Kingdom of Copper, and as such, I had been anticipating this book like a little kid waiting for Eid mithai. Nonetheless, all I received in the end was a gargantuan pile of conflicting character builds, an overabundance of disconnected world-building, a jaw-droppingly weak and essentially pointless villain, and a supremely anti-climactic series climax. Even though I am immensely heart-broken by this third instalment, I still highly recommend the first two novels in the series because they truly are some of the best fantasy books to come out of the genre in years.

The City of Brass Review
The Kingdom of Copper Review

Publication Date: 11-June-2020
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Genre: Islamic Literature, Epic Fantasy (Adult)
Page Count: 766
GoodReads: The Empire of Gold by S.A. Chakraborty

The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar

Can sadness be too heavy for God? Maybe God can bear it all, but I don’t know if I can. The world is a stone in me, heavy with Baba’s voice and the old clock tower and the man selling tea in the street. I want to believe things are supposed to be better, but I don’t have the words to say how.”

The Map of Salt and Stars eBook by Zeyn Joukhadar - 9781501169106 ...

The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar is an #OwnVoices Syrian-American fiction story about a girl named Nour and her family after they move back to Syria in the wake of her father’s passing. As they struggle to build a new life together in midst of unbearable grief, their town is bombed, significantly changing the course of their life as they know it.

There were so many elements to The Map of Salt and Stars that made it a phenomenally beautiful reading experience, such as the lyrical prose, the duality of stories being told, the nuances of past and present grief, and the heart-breaking nature of a refugee’s fight for survival.

The main character is a little girl named Nour. She has a condition called synaesthesia, which is neurological condition where multiple senses that are not typically connected become joined together. For example, it allows for people to hear colours or to be able to see sounds. Because of that, the prose is stunningly eloquent with lush descriptives that utilises numerous shades of bright colours to express feelings of sadness, grief, longing, guilt, joy and more. Nour sees the pain and suffering around her as people are dying or starving in shades of reds, yellows, and blues, for example. Because her entire existence is so heavily focused on the reliance of colours, the way she communicates her thoughts and fears to her mother seem almost constantly metaphorical. Eventually, their colour communication shall help them with an impossible situation that arises during their journey.

Now, there are two stories that take place side-by-side in The Map of Salt and Stars. The first is Nour’s story, during the present time, as her and her family become Syrian refugees. The second one is a fictional tale that her father used to share with her, and it occurs 800 years earlier, following a girl that disguises herself as a boy so she can become an apprentice to a renowned mapmaker. They travel the lands and fill in the blank places on the map. What makes both of these narratives so fascinating is how much of an echo they are of one another. Rawiya, the girl from the fictional story, goes on a long journey that allows for her to truly understand what family means to her, as well as what culture and history can mean for a person’s identity. Through Rawiya the reader also gets to experience Syria back when it was thriving and filled with tons of splendour, highlighting huge aspects of West Asian culture.

With Nour’s voyage, the reader gets to watch as Nour comes to understand how precious her family is to her. The memories of her father become her most cherished treasure, thoughts of her Syrian home and how it lay in pieces show her of a home she lost before she was able to grasp what it meant to her, and how the complex sibling rivalries she held with her sisters are meaningless and a waste of life when that same life can end in a single moment. Nour’s journey is one that is brimming with sorrow and terror and uncertainty as her family travels across lands where the ground is blanketed with brass casings, broken rocks, and ill-intentions.

“He said, ‘People don’t get lost on the outside. They get lost on the inside. Why are there no maps of that?’ ”

The only time that these two separate stories felt disjointed to me was when we shifted from one to the other. Because there is such a vast reliance on what sometimes amount to purple prose aesthetics with Nour’s point-of-view, it sometimes made it challenging for me to focus on sections with Rawiya, which felt rather simplistic and lacklustre in comparison. My brain could not adapt quickly or comfortably from a straightforward and artless tone to the more sophisticated and impeccably ornate descriptives of Nour’s world.

The Map of Salt and Stars eBook por Zeyn Joukhadar - 9781474606783 ...

Beyond that, The Map of Salt and Stars is an exceptionally heart-wrenching story to read. One of the biggest themes of the book is how quickly life can change. Nour and her family are uprooted as their home is destroyed. They gather everything that they can carry with them, find a few loved ones, and take off on foot in search of a place they can call home where death and dust do not plague them like shadows. This is the brutal reality of what it means to be a refugee, and a traumatising experience that many all around the world have undergone or are still experiencing to this day. The devastating experiences and overwhelming sense of hopelessness that threatens to dismantle Nour and her family is never sugar-coated or diminished, which I appreciated immensely because in spite of everything going on, they never lost that bit of hope, and this is such a profound message, particularly in tales that centre on a loss of identity to various extents.

The Map of Salt and Stars is one of the most consummate books that I have read in years, especially as it pertains to the refugee experience. It is magnificently compelling and emotionally riveting. The story is not an easy one to digest as it portrays the harsh reality of loss in multiple layers and dynamics, with the loss of home, loss of loved ones, loss of individuality, and even loss of faith, but that is also what makes it one of the most important books that you shall read.