The City of Brass is an intoxicating, magical and creative tale presenting a unique fantasy setting, compelling characters linked by an efficacious plot. Although it’s inticing location and wealth of world building makes it unique and captivating the novels complex history and backstory gives the reader a steep learning curve while presenting a complex and almost over detailed realm.
Swindling on the streets of Cairo to survive with gifts she doesn’t understand Nahri is poor, desperate and powerful. But when a Djinn appears, magical and angry, she enters the world she is meant to belong in. Daughter to a long dead queen, last in a royal family of oppressive leaders Nahri returns to the city her ancestors built to meet the rulers who defeated her family. Ali, meanwhile, is a warrior and second son to the king. Believing that the half Djinn half human Shafit should have rights in his father’s Kingdom Ali presents some dangerous opinions to the monarchy. But with a Shafit uprising brewing and Nahri’s family supporters appearing in earnest at her arrival the king will stop at nothing to hold his claim to the throne, putting Nahri and Ali in more danger than ever.
The world and the world building truly craft this exotic tale. Set in eighteenth century Cairo The City of Brass presents a realm like no other: from details of war with the Franks, to the dessert streets of Cairo our seedy protagonist introduces us to her life. The reader is shown a glimpse into Nahri’s and Ali’s respective worlds but often left to piece together the details of their characters, the mythology and the mythical City of Brass. Details are dotted throughout the novel, the entire concept grasped through the well written prose and never thrust upon the reader in weighty paragraphs. However, the novel comes with a steep learning curve: vast locations, a complex political system and city, folklore, the lands history, a multitude of magical creatures and hidden talents are all held between the pages of this thick novel. The plethora of new vocabulary and complex detail makes the novel, at times, difficult to follow and often the history is difficult to discern and understand.
Nahri is a unique and compelling character. Not knowing her true heritage rather than dwelling on the healing powers she can’t understand her focus remains on food and lodging as she uses her gifts to swindle on the streets of Cairo. Her lack of knowledge of the Djinn world made her chapters more relatable, demanding the same answers as the reader, her confusion and needs relatable to any reader. As Nahri begins to learn her identity she is placed in the palace and her character side steps away from the prominence she once held to the plot, instead focussing on her studies and patients. Nahri struggles with the weight of the powerful ancestors she is required to mimic, her lack of knowledge of the Djinn world putting her at a disadvantage. As schemes slowly start forming around Nahri she soon turns her sharp eye and keen mind to the politics she’s been told not to dabble in and it only a shame that this Nahri was not presented earlier.
Ali opens our tale as a prince fighting a rebel cause against his own government, a unique trope that Chakraborty wields artfully. Desperate to rid his land of poverty at any cost, accompanied by his soldier background, Ali presents a unique moral character. His struggle against proving loyal to his family while desperately trying to save those who aren’t allowed medical care in their world provides an unusual moral complex. His character presents a conundrum to those around him: painted as a kind hearted prince to the reader he is considered a religious fanatic and his views would likely lead to rebellion. This prince opens the tale having developed in a way many other fictional princes strive to become: aware of the needs of his people, desperate to help the poor and without a trace of greed or selfishness. Rather, Ali learns the harsh realities of what it takes to rule the City of Brass and it is this that shapes his character throughout our novel.
The writing style is simple, with sparse descriptions and a plethora of unusual words referring to the mythology used, the society at the time and the religions of the area. The dialogue is sarcastic and humourous, conjuring jokes at times and feelings of anguish at others. The style lacks compelling and beautiful descriptions, focussing on the plot, dialogue and character development yet still intices the reader with its unusual world building. Chakraborty builds a complex world around her protagonists without compromising her writing, the text never feeling too heavy with detail. However this light approach does make it somewhat confusing and the unusual terms used throughout the novel can make the plot difficult to follow.
The plot is told from two accounts: Nahri as she journeys from a thief on the streets of Cairo and Ali as he struggles with funding his cause and betraying his father. In the first half of the novel it is Nahri’s tale that is most captivating: her and Dara’s fights with dark spirits and powerful mythical creatures that want to stop her reaching safety, while Ali’s chapters focus on palace life and introducing the reader to the destination Nahri aims to reach. These two tales interweave as Nahri reaches the royal palace and is appointed the grand role her ancestors once held. The plot lacks direction slightly as the novel steps into a more explanatory mode, awash with political intrigue and Nahri learning about her magic. This lack of direction contributes somewhat to the novels drawn out middle pacing that only picks up towards the end of the novel with its shocking climax.
The pacing of The City of Brass, therefore, is also two fold: from both Nahri’s and Ali’s perspective. The novels opens slowly as Nahri and the reader are taken on a learning curve to understand the realm and it’s complex history and customs, dramatic battles and history lessons from Dara dotting the first half. These chapters felt somewhat slow at times and the novel takes a long time to reach the critical climax that sparks the tales plot: Nahri’s arrival in the City of Brass. Following this, the pacing slows as the novel follows Nahri around the palace, which makes the later half feel tiresome as the reader waits for the climax the tensions in the palace will surely lead to. The ending does not dissapoint although feels a tad too fast compared to the slow build up, the complex plot unraveling in just one night leaving readers littles time to digest each motive and action.
Family is a key relationship focused upon in this novel. From Ali’s brother and future king struggling to defend Ali to their father and protect him to Nahri’s longing to understand her heritage it remains a recursive theme throughout. With the plot centering on the royal family this theme is played out often and the tensions between each family member is pivotal to the plot.
The relationship between Dara and Nahri is also pivotal to the plot. From weeks travelling the two quickly become close, Nahri finding him attractive almost instantly when they find themselves in their first battle. This instant love persists as Nahri begins to learn who Dara is and why his return is so shocking. Similarly Nahri’s world and character is dramatically growing as she learns the truth of her identity and heritage, these complexities putting pressure on the young couple. Their relationship felt uncomfortable from it’s very beginning: he captured her and forced her to journey to the City of Brass, never really explaining much and the initial steps of their love felt more like Stokolm Syndrome. His secrecy about his dark history and the hundreds of years ages difference between them further make this relationship damaging. Finally, Dara leaves Nahri scared and lost at the palace, is angry when she befriends Ali, feels possessive towards her actions, thoughts and feelings and attempts to control her once again at the novels close. This toxic relationship felt very uncomfortable throughout the novel and did nothing to build up Nahri’s character.
The target audience for City of Brass would be adults. Nahri and Ali are similarly both twenty throughout the novel and, while their companions stretch to vast ages well in their hundreds, they roughly reflect human adults. The novel feature murder, torture and scenes in brothels.
Overall The City of Brass is a creative and unique tale, presenting two leads that step away from the stereotypical prince and thief that are usually seen in literature. The novel is only let down by the vast amounts of details the reader is required to understand to follow the complex realm and traditions, making the tale drag at times and feel confusing at others.