Nahri, an orphaned con artist living in eighteenth-century Cairo and the protagonist of S.A. Chakraborty’s debut The City of Brass, doesn’t know who she is, who her parents are, or why she can harness magic to heal people. She certainly doesn’t know why she has an affinity for all languages, from the French and Turkish of the factions occupying Egypt, to a strange tongue she somehow knows in her bones, even if she’s never heard anyone else speak it. As a young woman with no prospects, she runs an impressive array of swindling activities in order to survive, entrenching herself deeper and deeper into the underbelly of Cairo even as she dreams of one day going to Istanbul to learn healing properly. While performing a pseudo-healing ceremony, Nahri accidentally calls forth Dara, an incredibly powerful djinn with a violent, bloody past, who realizes (and reveals) the truth Nahri’s never known: that she herself is part djinn, descended from a long line of healers. For her own safety, she can’t remain in Cairo any longer—she’s now a target for ifrit (basically evil djinn with no souls who are her family’s enemies). A flying carpet is involved.
From there we follow Nahri and Dara as they make their way to Daevebad, the titular City of Brass, where only those with djinn blood can enter, and into a world of courtly and political intrigue, marked by tribal djinn loyalties that stretch back thousands of years. Even though it’s the safest place for djinn, Daevabad is far from perfect—the ruling classes oppress and marginalize the shafit, or half-djinn, with the threat of rebellion and war always in the air. There’s also the small hiccup that Nahri is part of the tribe that clashed with the current ruling tribe, with Dara himself as the weapon of destruction in their ancient war; as a result, dropping Nahri from one environment governed by codes and customs into another proves to be a fish-out-of-water experience for her in multiple ways. She’s exchanged the colonial powers of France and the Ottoman Empire in her native Egypt for a new set of injustices and oppressions, a theme that is lightly touched on but never overstated.
As you might have surmised, The City of Brass is incredibly heavy on plot and world-building, almost challenging the reader to pay attention and remain alert to the nuances in each character’s actions and behaviors—how what djinn tribe they’re from influences their patterns of speech, dress, and thinking. In this way the reader’s journey parallels Nahri’s rather cunningly: both the reader and Nahri thrown into this complex world with no foreknowledge, so both parties are kept forever on their toes.
The narrative also moves incredibly quickly, to the extent that Nahri’s life in Cairo almost feels like a prologue to the rest of the story—it’s established, she unwittingly summons Dara, and then they’re basically off to Daevabad—which is unfortunate, since the character of Yaqub, a Jewish apothecary and familial figure to Nahri, shows up once and then is never mentioned again. Indeed, it almost feels as if a section that further established the life in Cairo Nahri leaves behind, or at least a reappearance of Yaqub in some way in later chapters, was cut out of the novel, leaving an incomplete plot thread that is rather dissatisfying. Nahri’s desire to be a healer is at least fulfilled since she eventually uses, and strengthens, her gift while living in the Daevabad palace, but, again, there aren’t enough opportunities to become invested in Nahri’s life as a Cairo con artist before she learns of her true nature and escapes to Daevabad.
One of the highlights of The City of Brass is Nahri’s and Dara’s fire-and-ice combativeness at the beginning of their journey; naturally, they develop feelings for one another even as Nahri snarks at Dara and Dara rolls his eyes at Nahri. Yet as entertaining as Nahri’s and Dara’s increasingly romantically-charged interactions are, the most complex and notable character is Ali, son of the ruler of the City of Brass and true second protagonist of the novel. Groomed to be the adviser to his libertine brother, the future king, Ali continually butts heads with his royal family about the marginalization and persecution of the shafit, and when Nahri and Dara arrive, he finds his loyalties tested, especially when he finds himself falling for Nahri. He’s incredibly petty, spoiled, naive, but rather kind-hearted, moved to help support shafit financially knowing it will only lead to trouble if he’s caught. Nahri’s growth and maturity over the course of the story are also striking, albeit more straightforward as she accepts her destiny and responsibilities even as she refuses to fully shed the mindset of a con artist.
It’s not really clear what function Dara serves beyond being an attractive, moody exposition-deliverer (and foil to Nahri) in The City of Brass. As he’s not given chapters that explore his point of view (whereas Nahri’s and Ali’s chapters are clearly marked), he remains a cipher both to Nahri and the reader. Bit by bit, his awful, near-genocidal past is revealed, but it’s mainly invoked in terms of what that past means for the djinn tribes as a whole, rather than on Dara’s character. There’s a promising undercurrent of an investigation of consent, and whether Dara, as a djinn who has been controlled and enslaved, possesses free will, but it’s not nearly developed enough to make Dara feel like a well-rounded character.
The City of Brass is ultimately a strong debut with a fast-moving plot and intriguing world-building that practically beg for sequels, if only to allow the reader to continue to wander the world Chakraborty has created. It’s currently being marketed as the first in a trilogy, and so there are plenty of opportunities for Chakraborty to continue to develop her characters, and to deepen the themes of fighting against oppression and the true nature of power, both in the world of djinn and in the world of humans. The City of Brass is a fine adventure, and an apt example of the importance of the #ownvoices movement in young adult fiction.