Review: City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty
The first in the Daevabad trilogy, this book is told from the perspectives of two characters: Nahri and Alizayd. Nahri lives as an orphaned con artist in 18th Century Cairo, but soon her criminal activities catch up with her as she summons a Djinn and learns the truth about her past. Ali is a prince of Daevabad, conflicted between his own morals and faith, and doing right by his family. Chakraborty was able to write two distinct voices and points of view effortlessly. As we travel with Nahri through danger-filled expeditions and watch Ali navigate political and moral dilemmas, the extent of the Chakraborty’s commitment to constructing this world is revealed.
Quality world-building is essential to creating a sense of realism for the reader, especially when reading high-fantasy, and Chakraborty does this well in City of Brass. It helped that Nahri was also unaccustomed to this world, and that we were learning alongside her. Though keeping track of the different races, histories and the politics was demanding at times, the included glossary helped to resolve any confusion. Another compelling aspect of her work was her characterisation, making readers invested and attached to the cast of characters.
Ali; a pious, self-serious and kind-hearted scholar, trying to grasp his own privilege and balance exercising his own power with the love he has for his family. He is suffering an inner-battle between wanting to be a good brother and son and doing something about the injustice the city’s people face under his father’s rule. Watching him face his own prejudices and come to terms with his own shortcomings was fantastic. He is flawed, but ultimately wants justice and peace within the kingdom he calls home.
For a book that is lauded for its Muslim and Middle Eastern representation, I feel that the Muslim aspect was lacking. It would have been far more constructive for the book to have been displayed as a Middle Eastern inspired fantasy. Ali was the sole character who was remotely portrayed as being Muslim, and he was ostracised for it by almost everyone including his family. He was regarded as strange for avoiding actions that did not align with his religious beliefs. The reference to him being a “religious fanatic” in the story was left unchallenged by the author, causing me a degree of discomfort.
Of course, not all Muslims display their faith in similar fashions or hold identical perspectives. There is no monolith to those who observe the religion as faith differs from person to person; influenced by an individual’s culture, community and upbringing, as well as individual thought. But, this diversity within Muslims was not portrayed in any respect.
Chakraborty has a beautifully expressive style to her writing and I really enjoyed the descriptions and the wit in her dialogues. It is comforting to find a novel that deviates from the stereotypical Orientalist lens, showcasing the Middle East’s diversity and the richness of its mythology. An ambitious debut novel, it is worth the read, with an ending that will leave you wanting more.
By Bochra Boudarka
Illustration: Shreya Gupta