City of Brass
- Media: #Books #Books 2020
- Author: S.A. Chakraborty
- Date: 2020-07-20
- Tags: #fiction #book #fantasy #djinn #ya
- Rating: ★★☆☆☆
- Idea richness: ★★☆☆☆
- Links: Highlights
- Identity & politics
- Terrible ya romance
Everyone is an asshole, and their ancestors are too. Some at least have the grace to be well-meaning assholes, or cunning assholes. Alas, two of are central characters are mostly straight up stupid assholes.
Orphan thief with healing powers is whisked from her hustler life in Cairo and hunted across the desert after accidentally summoning a djinn (well, Daeva) and discovering she is the last of a legendary race of healers. Thief and djinn angrily flirt their way across desert before arriving in the titular city of brass around halfway through the book. At this point, it pivots to thief mopping around palace, more or less a prisoner, while she and the djinn fight to see who can make the most idiotic choices before, 85% of the way through, djinn attempts to kidnap her and murder her newfound friends/scheming political enemies setting her up. All while the two are somehow a supposed romantic pairing… I guess?
Oh and while this is happening said political enemy prince is engaged in a conspiracy which fizzles out halfway through along with the other political conflicts setup before mostly disappearing into the background except for the odd bit of tribal leverage.
Much of my hype for this book was based on the setting. Cairo under French occupation? Infighting djinn in a magical city? A rich Arabic world with a smart thief thrown into the middle, bridging the human and magical worlds? Yes please!
The world building goes into overload of names and info dumping on more than one occasion. This is a shame because much of it isn’t necessary and could have waited to be revealed more organically. There are ultimately only about three tribes whose background has any kind of baring on the story.
That said, all the major djinn tribes did terrible things to each other at some point in the past and argue about their versions of history and who is justified. This is great and a level of complexity I was not expecting. There are the currently oppressed and the current oppressors but few to no one is perfect or innocent of bloodshed. This meshed perfectly with the themes of identity and racism with Nahri and shafits (half-djinns). Alas, if you are hoping for a pay off, or even a much deeper exploration, of any of these themes in this volume, you’re going to be disappointed.
Annnnnnd this is where the good ends.
I don’t normally hate characters. Find them dull, or flat, or stupid, sure, but usually not actively dislike. By the end, I actively disliked Nahri. Even more than Dara (Mr. Genocide), which is saying something.
We’re told she’s an independent street hustler. We’re shown the opposite as after Cairo, we mostly see her being tricked, shirking anything she deems difficult, or moping over an abusive crush while doing anything to appease him (she is concerned about his legacy and blames herself after he refuses to explain anything, ignores all her requests, and coerces her using the threat of killing the only other person she cares about in the city). In a book that set her up as a central (if not THE central) Mary Sue, she has little to no agency and may as well be a side character so one of the actually interesting ones can take over.
Speaking of interesting, King Ghassan, Muntadhir, and Ali are the ones I would rather read about. I’d rather read a book centred on the evil king and sons political shenanigans and morally grey to black politics than Nahri.
In my mind there are three types of volumes in a series:
- standalone stories that happen to be part of an overarching world and series
- mostly standalone arc tying into an overarching storyline and leaving just enough threads dangling
- cliffhangers and stories which live to setup the next volume or may as well just be one massive book in the first place.
City of Brass is firmly in the third category. Unfortunately, this is my least favourite type. After spending half the page count just getting to the city followed by a long sojourn of Nahri locked in the palace, it just… ends. Sure it ends with a bang, but I couldn’t help but feel ultimately not much actually happened or brought any threads, themes, or characters to a satisfying conclusion.
City of Brass deals with complex themes in an rich setting but it does with such overwhelmingly simple protagonists that the themes feel minified instead of explored
I had such high hopes and wanted so badly to like it. Even in the first half which I’d heard was slow, I actually thought the build up was going to pay off. I enjoyed Ali’s political conflicts even while Dara and Nahri did little but angrily flirt and exposition dump in the desert. But it was not to be. City of Brass presents a rich setting tackling complex and pressing themes of identity, oppression, and justice in a world where no closet is without a skeleton. However, that fertile stage is bogged down by unnecessary ‘world building’ information overload attempting to be political drama but ultimately not rising above an uneven adventure story dragged along by frustrating characters.
I wanted to give it 3 stars but by the end I was so annoyed by Nahri, Dara, and setupy-ness that I had to fight the urge to go to 1 star. So here we are in the land of compromise at 2. Probably more like 2.5 when I’m feeling less bitter about my hopes being crushed.
I hope the build up pays off in later volumes but I’m sad to say I won’t be reading them.
- A perpetually conquered city of djinn, where every tribe has their own version of historical events to justify their actions.
- Merchants curse their wares at night, must undo in the morning.
- "..children carrying messages made of burnt glass that shattered upon revealing their words"
- Ishtas - "small, scaled creatures obsessed with organization and footwear. For a bit of fruit and negotiation, Ali’s shoes would be returned to him after prayer, scrubbed and fragrant with sandalwood." #creatures
- A house that's 'not haunted... just misses its founding family'
- headdresses of glittering stones and wigs of braided metals.
- "little boy with fiery hair tried to coax a golden bird twice his size from a rattan cage." #characters
- "impossibly tall towers of twisting sandblasted glass, delicate mansions of molten silver, and floating tents of painted silk" #locations
- Fire salamander which burrows beneath skin. Invisible without magic. #creatures
- "The bite of a simurgh—firebirds the djinn enjoyed racing—would cause one to slowly burn up from the inside."
- Monstrous scroll made from lizard hide which cuddles with and protects other scrolls in dark recesses of library.
- Entire phoenix dissolved in honey.