My favorite part of being a book reviewer is when I find a brand new author to absolutely fall in love with. I stumbled upon S. A. Chakraborty a few weeks ago at a reading for the New York Review of Speculative Fiction. After hearing her read the first chapter of her debut novel, I immediately went home and requested a review copy so I could find out what happens next. The City of Brass is the first book The Daevabad Trilogy, a new adult fantasy series that delves deep into Islamic mythology, particularly those devious creatures known as the djinn. The book just came out on November 14th, so you can find it at your local bookstore or click the link at the end of this post to buy it online.
Growing up an orphan in eighteenth-century Cairo, Nahri has learned to make her own way as a fraudulent mystic and con-woman. Though she has some unusual abilities—such as being able to sense when others are sick, and even sometimes heal them—Nahri is not much of a believer in the supernatural. So it comes as a complete surprise when her magical mumbo jumbo accidentally summons a djinn—or a daeva, as he prefers to be called. Dara is a hardened daeva warrior who has been enslaved to humans for centuries. He may be the most dangerous man Nahri has ever met, but he’s also the only one who can help her find some answers about her parents and her heritage. Dara and Nahri fight past necromantic ifrits, giant fire-birds, and ancient water demons to reach the powerful djinn city of Daevabad, but there are almost as many dangers inside the palace walls as outside. The six races of djinn are constantly in conflict with each other and with the mixed-blooded shafit that are the result of forbidden relationships with humans. Prince Ali, the younger son of the king, tries desperately to alleviate some of the suffering of the second-class shafit, but in turn causes more trouble with the Daeva clan, Dara’s ancestral people. When Nahri arrives in the city, revelations about her ancestry cause some of the djinn to question their allegiances.
The world-building in this novel blew me away. Chakraborty takes a rich mythological tradition and adds to it constructed languages, fictionalized cultures, detailed histories, and complex political intrigue. With different djinn clans clamoring for power and tearing each other apart in bloody wars, the history of Daevabad reads almost like an episode of Game of Thrones. The six races of djinn have distinct cultures influenced by the nearest human societies, and thus also their own cultural views and prejudices. Each character’s motivations are informed by an intricate web of clan loyalty, internalized biases, religious affiliation, romantic attachments, ancestral grievances, and personal moral compass. Nothing about this book was reductive or oversimplified; every aspect of it showed nuance, effort, and meticulous attention to detail.
Speaking of avoiding simplification and stereotypes, let’s talk about the book’s depiction of djinn. If you haven’t figured out by now, djinn are the supernatural beings better known in Western popular culture as “genies.” Most of us know of them through the stories in One Thousand and One Nights or its Disney adaptation, Aladdin, in which a young man rubs a lamp and is granted three wishes by the entity that emerges. The City of Brass manages to participate in this literary tradition without falling into old tropes. Though the fact that djinn can be enslaved to humans is an important element of the book, most of the djinn we meet are free. The main conflict in the story is between groups of djinn, rather than between a human master and a djinn slave or between two humans using the djinn as a tool. Lamps are mentioned as one of many possible objects used as a slave vessel—a fun reference to the Aladdin story—but only as a side note, not a plot point. And most importantly, there’s really only one moment in the book that hinges on wish making. I’m pretty sure every other djinn or genie story I’ve read puts the central focus on the three wishes and the dangerous nature of wishing. In The City of Brass, Chakraborty takes a creature that has usually been reduced to one simple trope and creates something completely new and original.
If you’re interested in reading The City of Brass, you can find it at your local bookstore or buy it online and support The Gothic Library in the process by clicking on the affiliate link below.