The City of Brass — Book Review

Call them djinn or genie, but wish-granting, lamp-bound spirits have long been a part of our cultural imagination. From I Dream of Jeannie to Disney’s Aladdin, to silly jokes about lamps found on the beach, we all grew up hearing about them.

So what if you found out you had djinn heritage?

The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty asks just that question.

Nahri is an orphan living in Cairo. She’s survived through a combination of street smarts, wit, petty crime, and healing abilities. She doesn’t believe in magic despite her own aptitude for diagnosing and mending illness and injuries. Her main concern in life is planning her next score, but she does have dreams. Deep in her heart of hearts, she wants to go to school to learn medicine.

Of course nothing ever goes as planned for orphans in fantasy novels, so instead Nahri finds herself accidentally summoning a daeva warrior and being whisked off to a world of magic and political intrigue.

This book wasn’t even on my radar until the start of this month when I saw it on some “Books you have to read in November” list and the summary got me so excited I pre-ordered it on the spot. I’m a sucker for a fantasy with an Egyptian setting, and I had really enjoyed reading “The Djinn Falls in Love” anthology earlier this year, so I was pumped for a novel-length work featuring djinni.

The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

The City of Brass was a solid 4 out of 5 for me. Not perfect, but damned enjoyable. I found myself lying in bed every morning to read another couple chapters before I got up and started my day, it was that good.

The two strengths of this book are Nahri herself, and the world building. Nahri has just the right balance of cynicism and hope. I like my heroines to have a little edge to them, and she has that… but she’s not so jaded that she immediately pushes people away. She makes friends, she might even fall in love.

As for the world building, Chakraborty gives us a city populated by quarreling factions of spirits. Political intrigue abounds and rebellion is brewing. Will Nahri’s entrance to the city calm things down, or fan the flames?

One thing I really enjoyed is that there’s no clear “good” or “bad” group. Both the old rulers of the city who were overthrown and the current dynasty have done bad things. Neither can be said to be kind and benevolent leaders. So there’s no real easy decision for who Nahri should side with.

Our second narrator is Ali, second son of the king of Daevabad. I’m afraid I didn’t like him as much. Normally a man who combines warrior training and scholarly inclinations would be exactly the sort I’d go through, but he carries with him a strain of religious fervor that I find to be a huge turn-off.

The story sets up a bit of a potential love triangle between Nahri, Ali, and the warrior djinn she summoned, Dara. For me this was one of the weakest elements of the story because I didn’t want her to end up with either one. Both are keeping secrets from her and both felt a bit too alpha-male for me. Dara especially demonstrates controlling tendencies and a temper, which would be huge red flags for me if I were dating him.

The author seems to want to set up a bit of a dichotomy with Ali as the noble prince and Dara as the wounded bad boy, but neither archetype has ever worked for me.

My other complaint would be that Nahri doesn’t have any real female friends in her old life in Cairo or her new life in Daevabad. This book is the start of the trilogy so I hope maybe as the story progresses, Nahri will find women to be her allies, because it sure seems like she’ll need some.

These two issues did little to detract from my overall enjoyment of the book. While at times it can feel a little bit trope-y (orphan with mysterious origins, love triangle, hidden magical city, we’ve seen all this before), sometimes there’s comfort in familiar tropes. And when those tropes are paired with good pacing and a lot of moral grey areas that make it hard to see a clear-cut solution, you get an enjoyable read.

I definitely want to read the rest of this trilogy. The ending of The City of Brass left me wanting more, and I’ll pre-order the sequel as soon as I can.

Pros: Diverse protagonists, great pacing, a good change from European settings.

Cons: Limited LGBTQ+ representation, no female friendships, alpha heroes.

Final verdict: Imperfect but a great enjoyable read for the holiday weekend.

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