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

I have not kept up with my goal to blog daily, sadly. The truth is I’m devoting more of my time to writing fiction. I came up with an idea for a contemporary novel that is semi-autobiographical, exploring my manifesto on the arts, and I’ve been spending much of my time ruminating on that. Not truly writing, perhaps, but there you have it. So you’ll see more book reviews on this blog than nonfiction pieces. Another decision I made recently was that I will not be shooting any more portraits in 2020. It’s a hobby for me, and not enough people have hired me yet to make it worth the risk. Things will be different in 2021, though, I hope; I have a few projects in the works with regard to human-centered photography. I will still be shooting other things, though. Yes, with a camera.

Anyhow, without further ado, to my review of “The City of Brass” by S.A. Chakraborty. This is the last of my library books that I have checked out and am borrowing indefinitely for free from my generous local library. Never fear, though, I have three indie books coming up to review. I found this to be an intriguing book, a fitting start to a trilogy, but one that left me with more mystery than I wanted, at times.

This is a tale of magic, djinns, and other worlds just out of reach of the perception of humans. The book is set, at first, in Cairo, Egypt, following the story of Nahri, a scrappy twenty-something street urchin who makes a living as a con artist and a thief. But she also has real healing abilities, which seem like magic, even though she does not believe in such things. Despite being stuck in her ways, which she has used to survive all her life as an orphan on the rough-in-tumble streets of Cairo, she dreams of saving her money to apprentice as a doctor, and of a more respectable living. Above all, what she wants is respect, and to feel as if she belongs, somewhere. She is a child without a family, with no knowledge of her origins.

Then one day, when performing a ritual intended to exorcise a demon from a young girl’s body, but is really just a sham intended to swindle money from the family, she accidentally summons a real-life demon. Her business partner, a Jewish accountant, always told her not to meddle in magic she did not understand, and it seems he was right. It turns out to be a Daeva called Dara, a mystical being that has survived for fourteen hundred years, enslaved to humans and to other beings called ifrits, with a bloody past and a prejudice against shafrit, those of mixed magical heritage.

As the tale unfurls, it turns out that the mysterious Nahri is allegedly the last of her species, a race called the Nahids with powerful healing abilities. The Nahids ruled the world beyond, a place called Daevastana, fourteen hundred years ago. Dara was sworn to protect them, an Afrshrim; now Nahri’s Afshrim. The two race against time and demon enemies to reach Daevastana, where they will be safe from the human world and such demons due to their blood. Or so they think. A lovingly built up romantic subplot entangles the two further.

This is also the story of Ali, a brash, impetuous young prince, the secondborn son of King Ghassan. Ali, nought but a teenager when the story begins, was taken from his mother at a young age and raised with soldiers in a place called the Citadel, trained for war. But it turns out he has a soft spot for lost causes, a penchant which, along with his rash impulsivity, will get him into trouble. His family rules this land with an iron fist, always one step away from rebellion. Ali yearns for reform.

The stories of Ali and Nahri become intertwined, their fates linked, and not in the way you think.

I found this to be a mystical, lush book, full of beautiful descriptions and rich writing. It was a wonderful insight into the mythos of a culture about which I am learning. I’m so used to Western folk tales that it was refreshing to read about magic from the other side of the world.

I did, however, have many questions. I would presume these would be answered in the succeeding trilogy, but the magic system and some inconsistencies in it kept me puzzling. I’m not sure this was in a good way. I felt as if the plot and narrative arc took a back seat to describing the magic system and the culture that accompanied it. While there was plenty of romance, action and character development, I wanted… more. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I guess I’ll have to read the next books in the series to find out. Overall, my feeling about this book was a positive one.

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