“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.