City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty is as elusive and complicated as its main character, Nahiri. When we meet Nahiri, it is 18th century Cairo under tenuous French control. She lives in a poor section of the city, not far from the Necropolis. She’s a healer, a con artist, and a thief who is willing to rob places while the owners are away. And yet she has power and ability she herself does not quite understand, a nature that is fragile as is her position. This sets up the novel starting off, anyway, as a historical fantasy, a historical urban fantasy at that. The novel switches gears, however, when Nahiri accidentally summons a djinn. Soon on the run, Nahiri and the djinn, Dara, are traveling across the Middle East to a hidden city of the djinn, Daevabad. There, they encounter Prince Ali, already chafing under the reign of his father and the future reign of his brother, and a city on the edge of change, or destruction. We get intrigue, political agitation, ancient secrets and much more within the bounds of the city.
Ali, Nahiri, and Dara make for a triangle of interesting characters that the novel revolves around and develops in depth. These three characters, not quite in opposition, but rather in sometimes allied and sometimes orthogonal paths, make for lenses and points of view to illuminate the other characters and the society and world that they inhabit. They are all alien in their inhumanness (for Nahiri’s true nature, as she learns, is more complicated than she ever imagined) and yet their stories are extremely human and poignant. The idealistic Ali, whose naivete and strength are sorely tested in the reign of a father trying to hold control of the city and an elder brother whose future reign may already be a problematic one of suppression and power struggle. The troubled, driven Dara with a dark history, deep secrets, and a backstory that is slowly untangled in the course of the novel. And then there is Nahiri: thrust from her world into a completely unfamiliar one, complete with being asked to use powers she barely knew she possessed in ways she can barely comprehend. Oh, and becoming a political pawn all the while.
That said, around the three axes of the three main characters, the secondary characters are fully fledged ones with strong agency and power. The choice to make the Sultan a secondary character, rather than a major viewpoint one, always means that the main wielding of power within Daevabad is not quite as centered as it would be as if he was one of the hubs of the novel. This power at a distance makes the Sultan a force of nature as much as a character, and makes seeing our three characters deal with that power (Ali having dealt with it all of his life) all the more interesting. This novel, in truth, is bursting with characters and their stories. Even before we get out of Cairo, the relationship between Nahiri and the Jewish pharmacist Yaqub is an intriguing one that is delineated deeply but quickly, and I was left wondering about his life after Nahiri moves on from Cairo in her journey. The author has a deft hand in bringing characters and their lives and stories to life, no matter how briefly we get to intersect with them.
The worldbulding is fascinating, too. Djinn and their kin are hardly new in fiction or in fantasy, but there is inventiveness and interesting new twists and interpretations of the old stories and ideas of how they functional. For all of the ties to that old mythology, and exploring that, the author has plenty of new material and ideas as well. Using the 18th century as the “outside world” hook is in the end an interesting choice, as the djinn look both askance and with delight at what humans have invented (particularly in the realms of war). It’s not quite the culture shock for Nahiri that a modern 21st century denizen dropped into a pre-modern one would have, meaning that the author can focus on other parts of the worldbuilding in allowing Nahiri to see the magic, the political and social factions, and the characters of the world in full relief. The numerous types of djinn and magical creatures are, it feels, only the smallest of glimpses of the full diversity that the author has planned and thought about for the book. I also enjoyed all the various aspects of how magic works in this world, from Nahiri’s attempts to learn healing magic, to forked swords, fire magic and much more. This goes back to the idea that this novel is juggling things all at once — from the very historical urban fantasy of Cairo: Daevabad is almost a secondary world fantasy city, even if it’s really a hidden city on Earth.
The novel is strong on thematic elements. From Cairo under the French, to the political nature of Daevabad, with a ruling class very different than a large portion of the population, there are strong notes of occupation, oppression, freedom, and religious tolerance (or lack thereof) throughout the story. Through the stories, and the worldbuilding, the author asks some difficult questions. They do not overwhelm the plotting, intrigue and characters; they enhance and provide a context and backstory and frosting to the tasty cake of this novel.
City of Brass is an excellent debut, and I want to learn more about the characters, and the world. More, please!