I really enjoyed reading The Forbidden WIsh by Jessica Khoury, and I’ve had a bit of trouble finding another book with a Middle Eastern flair that spoke to me in the same way. When I came across The City of Brass, I felt that familiar tingle of excitement. When I saw Laini Taylor and Sabaa Tahir blurbs on the cover, one even referencing Rothfuss, I was done. I read in the Goodreads review thread that some of the readers didn’t like how it takes a long time for the main characters to arrive in Daevabad, the (apparent) central location for the series. That actually made me more excited, as I realized The City of Brass is a fantasy rather than YA. I always enjoy dense, information packed stories more. It stems from being a fantasy reader first and a YA reader second.
The City of Brass did not disappoint. Is it “the best adult fantasy I’ve read since The Name of the WInd” as Sabaa Tahir promises? No. But very little is worthy of that title, and I would have been surprised it had been. I like how the novel spends a lot of time introducing Nahri to us. Her life in Cairo, why she is loathe to leave it behind even though she doesn’t have much and is a mere street hustler. It explains that Nahri has always had magic, but also how she has been able to explain it away until she makes a big mistake that changes everything.
That “everything” comes in the form of djinn – excuse me, daeva – Dara. I admit freely that I am a big fan of the hate-to-love trope between two people who are very different, and The City of Brass gives it to me. If you don’t like the trope, I can see how that might be a bit annoying to you, because it’s really obvious from the start that these two are going to develop a strong bond. Dara is very stiff-backed and it’s amusing to see how he continually puts Nahri’s birth family on a pedestal, only for Nahri to upset it in every way. Not only because she doesn’t behave how he feels someone of her family should, but because her very existence appears to proclaim the other members of her family weren’t so holier-than-thou either.
The one annoyance I do have with The City of Brass is that Dara really drags out giving Nahri the information to which she is entitled. It doesn’t really serve any purpose other than to keep readers in the dark a bit longer. If Dara would have revealed his knowledge about Nahri’s family at the beginning of their trip, the outcome for Nahri would not have been significantly different. I would even argue that it is extremely dangerous for Nahri to go in blind, although Dara has a point in making sure she comes across as innocent and underwhelming as possible. But Nahri is a con artist, and he knows it. She could have acted the part.
It is all null and void anyway, because the tyrant of Daevabad knows her instantly. He alone is able to see her exactly as she is, revealing a spell that alters her appearance to make her look human or half-breed. This sparks an interesting question: what is going on? S.A. Chakraborty knows how to build up the tension – by the end of the first book, we still barely know what is going on. It makes me want to read ahead, jump to books two and three, to unravel the full mystery of Nahri and her family.
Part of why this works, instead of being annoying (as it was with Dara), is because it’s so multi-layered. The way the present ruling family and Nahri’s family are seen, changes depending on who you’re talking to. It makes them three dimensional and moves them away from being either good or bad. Alizayd’s father is a tyrant, but it appears Nahri’s family had it coming when he took the throne from them. Where one group of people suffered then, another group of people suffers now. And if Nahri finds a way (and the will) to take the throne, will she be any better?
Nahri’s relationship with the ruling family could have benefitted from more attention. She meets Alizayd’s sister once, and it does not end well. After that, it’s being left alone mostly. Her friendship with Alizayd seems to develop a bit too quickly. It’s not uncommon for two people to instantly take a liking to one another, or have enough similar interests to bind them together, but S.A. Chakraborty tries at first to show us this isn’t necessarily true. Yet, they do find a rhythm together almost immediately.
The way in which the triangle of Alizayd, Dara and Nahri is described, on the other hand, is a long-simmering one. Dara has that same questionable status as the rest of them, in the sense that you never know if you should regard him as being in “camp good” or “camp bad”. He has done some terrible things, but the motives remain unclear. All I can say with certainty is that he has an unquestioning loyalty to Nahri – he will protect her in any way he thinks helps. Which, of course, is sometimes not helpful at all. The scene in which Dara practically kidnaps Nahri to leave the palace with him, was a delight to read. Three people with very different ideas and motives forced to walk together – I really enjoyed it.
The City of Brass is a densely written story, that implies a lot of layers both in the storyline and in the characters. We don’t really see it come out in the first book, which is a bit of a disappointment, but it’s clear that books two and three are going to resolve some major plot points that will make this series a success. I really like how no one is to be fully trusted, because their motives are yet unclear. We can’t say who is in which camp, nor can we say who is right or wrong. The bond between Nahri en Dara is well fleshed out, and her friendship with Alizayd is as well. There are some critiques to be given, but I really enjoyed this book and I can’t wait for 2019.