The Flame Still Burns

The City of Brass — S.A. Chakraborty
Daevabad Trilogy, book 1

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2017’s historical fantasy The City of Brass is S.A. Chakraborty’s debut novel, the first in the Daevabad Trilogy.

Napoleon’s French and the Turks agree on one thing; Cairo cannot rule itself. Their only disagreement is over which of them is best suited to own Egypt. Nahri sees little distinction between the foreign occupiers, although the “Franks” are less likely to kill her for being a witch.

Not that Nahri admits to being an actual witch. As far as she is concerned, magic and religion are con games designed to separate gullible marks from their money. Her ability to heal with a touch is merely a minor quirk, one she accepts without wanting to explain it. She is greatly surprised, and therefore, when her improvised flourish during an exorcism summons Dara, an actual djinn.

 A very angry, extraordinarily powerful djinn who takes being summoned by a mere human as a personal affront.

To Nahri’s surprise, being confronted with a livid person of smokeless fire isn’t the worst thing that happens to her that day. She may not believe in magic, but she’s certainly able to wield it. That makes her a person of interest to beings like her djinn, which is bad, and also to the far more malevolent ifrit and their legions of ghouls, which is much worse. She would be dead save for Dara’s timely intervention.

The most logical explanation for Nahri’s abilities is that she is a Shafit, the product of a forbidden coupling between human and djinn. Her knack with healing points to a specific djinn tribe, the Nahids. This is astounding for two reasons. First of all, the Nahids are notorious religious sticklers who would never break the rules against cross-species fraternization. The second is that the previous sentence should be past tense, because, as far as anyone knows, the Nahids died out a human generation ago. If Nahri is what she appears to be, she is the last of the Nahids … and perhaps a chance to revive the tribe. If Dara can deliver Nahri to Daevabad, the city of the djinn, she might be safe from the ifrits.   

Complicating matters is the trifling detail that the Nahids were at one time the ruling family of Daevabad, the City of Brass. Many within the city still revere them. Her existence could be construed as a threat to the current ruler, Ghassan, and his sons Muntadhir and Alizayd. The city is already torn by ethnic and religious strife. Nahri’s unexpected appearance might further roil the waters.

Ghassan is not one who hesitates to deal with a threat. In this case, the threat may be compounded by the fact that Dara is a legendary, feared enemy of Ghassan’s people.

But Ghassan is also cunning. He announces that Nahri’s human appearance is due to a concealing spell; she is in fact a full blooded Nahid. He receives her with great respect, installs her in his palace, and moves to betroth her to his eldest son, Muntadhir. Their offspring will have a dual claim to the throne, which should settle all dispute.

It’s a solution elegant in its simplicity. It might even have worked, save for a few minor problems:

  • Dara is not quite what he seems;
  • Ali is an idealist with a talent for making matters much worse;
  • Nahri is in love with the wrong brother.

~oOo~

Suleiman (the Solomon of the Torah/Bible/Quran) had a bold solution to the problem presented by the powerful and malevolent djinn. He bound them with magic (Suleiman’s seal) and divided them into tribes. They further split into law-abiding djinn and lawless ifrit, and fell to fighting with each other, djinn against ifrit, tribe against tribe). They were too busy, for the most part, to pester humans. Suleiman thus set in motion generations of hatred and violence, not to mention brutal exploitation. Go team Suleiman!

(But I don’t know that a person of Suleiman’s time would have seen slavery and brutal autocracy as necessarily bad. I have to admit that I’m really curious to see what happens in Daevabad once the city’s human contacts start delivering copies of Das Kapital.)

Nahri is living a faerie tale story, one in which she is whisked away from poverty and danger to life in a glittering palace, elevated to high rank and surrounded by unimaginable wealth. The catch is that, as in so many faerie tales, one wrong step will have terrible consequences. Like many Tanith Lee protagonists, Nahri has value but very little power. Her healing abilities are unique but alas, she has never received the training that would let her use them effectively. She begins to suspect that Ghassan wants her to fail, in order to demean her.

Chakraborty does a nice job of handling her cast. Nahri is an intriguing protagonist, and the ifrits aside, one whose opponents are motivated by more than mere greed and malice. Ghassan does not hesitate to be ostentatiously cruel, but his purpose is not self-aggrandizement but rather the stability of his kingdom, If an act of kindness were to effect his purposes, he would be happy to be kind. The idealistic Ali is even more sympathetic. He has been trying to help the oppressed Shafit of Daevabad (so far without doing more than sow havoc). By the end of this first volume of the planned trilogy, he has screwed up monumentally. Achieved new heights of screwing up. Where could things go from here?

Although much in this book reminds me of Tanith Lee’s tales of coveted but powerless beauties, Nahri is far less vulnerable than they. Her life on the streets of Cairo has fitted her to survive amidst the machinations of the great and pitiless. I liked her. My editor didn’t. I thought her like Maia, the protagonist of the Goblin Emperor in some ways (young person suddenly finds themself much closer to the throne than they could have expected). My editor found her grating (yet another #$%#$^% feisty heroine). If what I’ve told you so far interests you, read the book and assure me that I’m right and my editor is wrong. Ahem.

The City of Brass is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

 


Comments

  • David Cowie

    "But I don’t know that a person of Suleiman’s time would have seen slavery and brutal autocracy as necessarily bad. I have to admit that I’m really curious to see what happens in Daevabad once the city’s human contacts start delivering copies of Das Kapital."
    Human history suggests that a different faction than the current rulers would get to be slavers and brutal autocrats, and would use a different justification for their actions.

  • Robert Carnegie

    Another plucky feisty young heroine on the criminal side of Cairo, who discovers an extraordinary ability, comes to mind, probably quite wrongly; I'm thinking of Ororo Munroe from The X-Men. But she was a thief (pickpocket/ burglar in an Arabian Fagin's gang), modern (in elastic comics time, it all always happened "recently"), and left the town when she was 12. Her mutant power to control weather - including indoors - arrived later, with puberty. She's been the wife or wife-to-be, not always by choice, of several interesting characters, Dracula for one, an interdimensional warlord named, er, Khan, possibly a whale from space, and of course the noble Black Panther of Wakanda.

    You say Dara is not quite what he seems; in the review, he seems to identify Nahri as half-Nahid by her special power and sets out to save her... why? He's a conservationist? He's law-abiding djinn, maybe a police officer? The healing power is valuable? (Why was the tribe wiped out, then?) He expects to win a bet? She scammed him with legerdemain? "Doctor Who" just has a soft spot for humans, particularly females, despite losing several of them to marriage and rescuing at least one from being a giant spider's wedding breakfast. But with anyone else, you look at their motives more closely.

    You say Suleiman cursed the djinn into tribes and then they split into djinn and ifrit, so apparently these aren't different beings, just differently behaved.

    I may put this on my Christmas list.

  • James Davis Nicoll

    Djinn and ifrit are both peoples of smokeless fire but when the unpleasantness with Suleiman happened, the Djinn tried to soldier on under Suleiman’s rules while the ifrit cut deals with demons for power.

    The clan issues are entirely within Djiin society.

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