Every once in a while you start a book by a debut author, and just know that you’ve come across something special. I had exactly that moment of delight and surprise with S A Chakraborty‘s The City of Brass (review copy from Harper Voyager). This is a novel with all the magic and wonder of the Arabian Nights, but with a contemporary sub-text.
Nahri lives in Cairo making a living as a healer, but hustling on the side to augment her income as much as she can. She will con rich clients out of as much money as she can, sets them up for burglary and conducts fake rituals on the side for extra cash. She even has an arrangement with her local apothecary to get a cut of the business she sends his way. But as a lone woman with no formal training she struggles to make a living, even though Nahri’s secret is that she can diagnose and heal illness in a way that no normal healer can.
Nahri’s world is turned upside down when she uses a childhood song during one of her fake rituals. She finds that she’s accidentally summoned djinn who are desperate to kill her – but also Dara, a warrior djinn sworn to protect her. Nahri learns that she is the last of the Nahid, one of several races of djinn. The Nahid specialise in healing, and were wiped out following a brutal civil war. The ancestral home of the Nahid – Daevabad – is now controlled by another sect of djinn and there is a price on Dara’s head for the crimes he committed during that war. But Daevabad is the only place Nahri can be safe from those seeking to kill her.
In Daevabad Nahri is thrust into djinn politics in a way she never expected. This is a city of warring factions, and as the last Nahid she is welcomed as a saviour and Dara as a hero in some parts of the city. Nahri must find her place in this city fast, and has to call on all her street smarts to survive. She must also cope with her growing – but forbidden – attraction to the charming and heroic Dara.
It’s in Chakraborty’s world-building of Daevabad that The City of Brass really sings. This is a complex, multi-layered city with a rich history and complex patterns of power and influence. Everyone is flawed and has good motivations for what they do. There is no clear sense of good versus bad here – even Dara has a very dark past. Ghassan, the current ruler, oppresses certain djinn sects, and the humans who live in some parts of Daevabad, and is prone to cruel and arbitrary behaviour. But his family’s rule has brought an unprecedented period of peace and stability to the city. We see this most clearly through Ali, Ghassan’s second son. He has been brought up to serve in the military,. But his deeply ingrained religious faith and strong sense of right and wrong come under significant pressure as the book progresses.
And The City of Brass is a novel with a nod towards contemporary Middle Eastern politics. This is a book of warring religious sects. Peoples marginalised into ghettos and subject to discriminatory and oppressive laws. Aid money used to buy weaponry. Religious extremism used to justify violence. Chakraborty asks us whether the ends can ever justify the means in messy, complicated world. I can’t wait for the next books in the series.
Goodreads rating: 5*