Title: The City of Brass
Author: S.A. Chakraborty
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Date of publication: November 14, 2017
Genre: fantasy, historical, mythology
My rating: ★★★
The City of Brass is a highly ambitious debut that weaves a lush tapestry of Persian culture and mythology reminiscent of One Thousand and One Nights. Chakraborty’s incredible attention to detail brought the setting and characters to life and created a fully immersive reading experience. The characters are full of complexity (and more than a small helping of deviousness which was much fun).
The gripping first few chapters introduce us to Nahri, a young con-artist with healing abilities she thinks of as little more than a personality quirk. While convinced that magic doesn’t exist, she accidentally summons a mysterious djinn named Dara and finds herself on a perilous journey with him across the desert to the magical city of Daevabad, the home of Dara’s fellow creatures of smoke and ash.
From the moment Dara summons a sandstorm to fight off a graveyard full of ghouls, I was sure I was reading a new favourite book. After such an exciting start, it appeared as though we were being promised an action packed story full of diversity, magic and fantastical creatures like the enormous winged peri who can “rearrange the landscape with one single sweep of his wings” or scaled river monsters known as marid. It seemed like the perfect recipe for an unputdownable read and I was certain this book was going to be such fun.
However addicting the world and magical elements were at the start, the middle of the story suddenly becomes quite a muddled mess when we are introduced to Ali’s character who from then on shares half the perspective of the story. The action all but disappears and we are forced to trudge through info-dump after tiring info-dump in poor disguise as stiff and over-written dialogue. Ali’s chapters were honestly quite dull and his character was way too inflexible for me to relate to. I skimmed through a lot of his chapters.
As more and more backstory is revealed, the story becomes exhaustingly complex and yet doesn’t come to any satisfying resolution. Our characters hardly forge any new ground but mainly relive millennia-old resentments and complex politics that I only half absorbed. Then the story just ends with almost no questions having been answered and I was left with the feeling that it was just one drawn out prologue for the sequel.
I do have to give Chakraborty credit for her ambition in taking on such a politically charged story with so many characters and their widely varying and duplicitous motives, however I’m not sure it was handled to it’s potential. Somewhere along the way it loses focus and dissolves into a convoluted and unnecessarily confusing story that seems to have no commitment to saying anything meaningful. After over 500 pages I don’t think I could even say with confidence who the antagonists even are.
I’m sure Chakraborty is withholding information about Dara to save a dramatic reveal for the sequel, but I was mostly just frustrated trying to pin down his purpose in the book. It was an emotional roller coaster trying to figure out if he is a helper, a love-interest for Nahri, or even a villain. There are moments where he does some incredibly problematic and abusive things to Nahri and we haven’t been given a reason so far. I was really rooting for him at the start so I hope there is a good one.
All of that said, it was an intriguing debut that could be the start of a promising atmospheric fantasy series. If I do decide to read the sequel, I’m hoping to see the story become more focused and refined.
Let me know in the comments if you’ve had the chance to read this debut fantasy novel!