It’s not just me, is it? 2017 has been a really great year for debut novels. From Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods to R.E. Stearns’ Barbary Station, from Robyn Bennis’s The Guns Above to J.Y. Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven, and from K. Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter to Vivian Shaw’s Strange Practice, 2017’s managed to give us a pretty full slate of great new writers whose work we can—hopefully!—keep on looking forward to.
(2018, as far as literature is concerned, you have a lot to live up to.)
S.A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass is only the latest of this year’s excellent run of debut novels. It’s not my favourite—I have fairly specific tastes in what really hits my utter favourite spots. But it is a really solid fantasy novel with a vivid setting and an interesting set of protagonists.
Nahri is a conwoman in 19th-century Cairo, with some unusual talents—she can heal, and understand any language she hears. Despite her abilities, she doesn’t believe in spirits or magic. She’s about to learn just how mistaken she is: pursued by malevolent ifrit, she’s rescued by an angry and attractive djinn called Dara—though he calls himself a “daeva”—who insists she must go with him to a city full of djinn, where at least she can be protected from the ifrit that want to kill her.
Daevabad, the titular City of Brass, is home to the djinn and the Daeva, and to a history of conflict and betrayal. The current ruling family are the descendants of conquerors, djinn who adopted Islam in their original homeland, and who brought it with them when they overthrew the Daeva. In Daevabad, the Daeva hold to their old religion, and this causes friction with the most devoutly Islamic of the djinn. It causes friction, too, with those who are sympathetic to the plight of the shafit—people of mixed djinn and human heritage, who have very few rights within Daevabad and who aren’t allowed to leave—because the Daeva, more than the other djinn, see the shafit as lesser beings.
Ali, the young and very pious second son of Daevabad’s ruler, has been supporting some of the shafit agitators who’re working for more rights. He doesn’t know just how serious they are about their goals and methods, but he’s implicated up to his eyebrows. Nahri’s arrival in Daevabad complicates the city’s already-complicated politics, for it transpires that she may be a scion of the last ruling Daeva lineage, thought to have died out twenty years ago. She and Ali strike up a precarious friendship that, like Nahri’s relationship with Dara, will be severely tested by events.
I’m not convinced that City of Brass knows what kind of book it wants to be—or what kind of series it is setting up, as it doesn’t finish neatly in a single volume. In a book where the action is mostly politics, it may be odd to say that Chakraborty hides too much political manoeuvring from her viewpoint characters, and in consequence from her readers, but it’s true: throughout the novel, we’re given hints that Dara is keeping significant information from Nehri, but not until the very end of City of Brass does it become clear to the reader what that is, as Chakraborty breaks from her two-viewpoint pattern. Structurally and pacing-wise, I don’t find it satisfying. But its characters are enormously compelling, and so is its setting, where people with (mostly) good intentions grapple with the legacy of generations of conflict.
City of Brass holds a great deal of promise. It’s definitely worth checking out.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.