The City of Brass: Part 1 of a Thrilling Debut Fantasy Trilogy Set Around the Mughal Empire
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The City of Brass is a bang-hello-wow first installment to a fantasy trilogy for both adults and YA readers by debut author and history buff, S.A. Chakraborty.
Chakraborty’s “Daevabad Trilogy” brings us into a fantastical yet familiar world of human-acting djinn and daeva, marids and ifrit. The story is told in alternating chapters, but its energy concentrates around its orphan heroine, Nahri.
Nahri starts the book as a prototypical loner-outsider. Once in the titular City of Brass, she’s soon at the center of a centuries-old dispute. Yet this is no simple contest of Potter and Voldemort, good and evil, and it’s difficult for the reader to take any one side. Just when you think you have a character or group pinned down (ah, the Tanzeem are like the Muslim Brotherhood!), the picture changes.
The book draws upon histories and cultures in and around the Mughal Empire, and from a wide variety of djinn lore. Very roughly, the novel’s king plays a role similar to the real Shah Jahan (1592-1666), the Mughal leader who commissioned the Taj Mahal. The king’s older son is something like the liberal Dara Shikoh, while The City’s younger prince, Alizayd, is like the controversial Aurangzeb, an observant Muslim who ruled the Mughal Empire from 1658-1707.
In the novel, Islam remains what it is in the human world. Beyond that, the book’s cultural and culinary flourishes are inspired by many peoples: historic Persians, Medes, Arabs, Assyrians, Babylonians, and others. Ultimately, the novel forges its own convincing world of stern Geziris and luxury-loving Daevas, and the half-blood shafit, who lack the rights of the purebloods.
The City of Brass joins a growing number of compelling fantasy worlds built around the djinn of Islamic theology, written by authors with a strong understanding of djinn lore, often either Muslim or from Muslim-majority countries. In addition to several compelling new books in Arabic, notably Sonia Nimr’s Thunderbird, there are the many excellent stories in the multi-author collection The Djinn Falls in Love, G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, and Bangladeshi author Saad Z. Hossain’s Djinn City.
A Potterish orphan
The City of Brass opens in the fully human world of Ottoman-era Cairo, apparently during Napoleon’s brief campaign (1798-1801). Our heroine, Nahri, is an orphan in her late teens with a preternatural knowledge of healing. She is a mystery even to herself, and knows so little of her past she can’t name her mother tongue. Nahri earns her bread as a trickster, and, in the first chapter, she attempts to fleece some rich Turks. Later she goes to a zar, where she turns her cunning attentions to the city’s poor, with a sham exorcism.
But instead of singing the lyrics her audience believes will exorcise djinn, Nahri sings in her strange mother tongue. Nahri ends up calling a real, fiery daeva, and deadly ifrit appear soon after. These ifrit seem determined to kill Nahri for reasons she doesn’t yet understand. The angry daeva drags Nahri to the City of Brass, where she begins to understand who she really is.
City of Brass makes good use of this Harry Potter-ish turn of fortune. Nahri, an orphan outcast among the humans, becomes a sort of djinn royalty. She is apparently the daughter of Manizheh, one of the djinns’ most beloved and important healers, from a family line thought to have been wiped out by the ifrit.
What’s more, Nahri appears in Daevabad accompanied by Dara, a powerful veteran of the long war between Geziris and Daevas who should have been dead fourteen centuries ago. Nahri, who was a thief and a small-time swindler in the human world, now lives in the palace.
In another Potter-ish twist, Nahri is of a decidedly mixed lineage. She is believed to be the daughter of an important healer, Manizheh, who hailed from the “fire worshipping” Daevas. But Nahri was raised in Cairo as an observant Sunni Muslim who is less interested in luxury than libraries. She thus has an immediate affinity for the Geziris, particularly the austere and learned young Ali, who teaches Nahri to read.
Once these tangled allegiances have been set in motion, the book’s tempo never flags. We have palace intrigue, religious radicals, injustice, history, romantic triangles, and a fierce struggle over the meaning of good rule. It’s a novel to be read once at breakneck speed and a second time to savor the details, and one that would certainly be enjoyable as a screen adaptation.
The shifting currents of history
The real Aurangzeb (1618-1707) is one of India’s most vilified leaders, one who continues to make headlines today. Recently, a book about the Mughal leader by a US professor sparked thousands of hate messages. It’s easy to imagine The City of Brass’s austere, justice-seeking Prince Alizayd finding himself a topic of similar hate, interest, and admiration centuries after his death.
But one of the most pleasurable aspects of The City of Brass—which could easily be your fall guilty-pleasure read, whether you’re young or not—is that it has no easy villains. At least one of the characters has committed a great evil, but this evil has a context that helps us understand him and his deed.
Like its author, The City of Brass is keenly interested in history: who writes it, what makes the history books, and what’s left out. As Nahri, Ali, and the reader learn more about the history of Daevabad, our understanding of its current events and alliances constantly shifts. If there’s a moral undergirding to this wonderfully fast-paced, thrilling fantasy yarn, it’s that life is complex and well-researched, serious history matters.
Banner image of map of the world of City of Brass. Find the key to the map here