Wow, that was a tremendous letdown. I really ate up the first, say, third, of the City of Brass, and then slowly watched the wheels come off.
The premise is terrific. Nahri is a conwoman and healer living in Cairo and scraping by because of her skill at picking up languages and her remarkable healing (both herself and others) prowess. Little bits of backstory emerge in a fairly organic way: she is an orphan who grew up on the streets, she is ‘odd’ in some way that could be dangerous to her so she keeps a low profile, etc. She also doesn’t seem to have any friends but the local apothecary – parenthetically, perhaps having a protagonist who is plucky, and charmingly written, etc., but has no friends should be a big red flag for me that the story may go off the rails. Are there stories of audacious women with no real friends (ie, the friend is not just there to reveal important plot points, like not to lead a zar, or religious ceremony/ exorcism). I feel like there is a missed opportunity to help me see the protagonist from other’s eyes; not just the self-sufficient risk taker, but some other personality features.
She doesn’t take her friends advice and is soon swept into a world of djinn, ifrit, and magic. She is, apparently, the remaining descendent of the former ruling family of this magical world, and this is the source of her healing powers. She learns this while fleeing ifrit and the zombies they raise from Cairo’s largest cemetery; her protector/companion is an enslaved djinn named Dara. He’s gorgeous, rude, extremely violent, and carries an ancestral grudge. He suggests they should travel to Daevabad, the City of Brass, so she can learn more about who she is. I didn’t mind the extremely long journey, via flying carpet, to Daevabad. I didn’t even mind, for the most part, the awkward exchanges the two have that frequently involve her asking a question about who she is and he responding that they must get moving because she’s in danger; frankly, this made the journey feel about as long as it likely was.
In the meantime, we learn about the younger prince of Daevabad, Ali, who is a high ranking city guard and very good at fighting with a fiery sword. He is also tall and obsessed with the human world, so obsessed that he is committing treason against his king/father. The half djinn-half human residence of Daevabad are treated badly because their existence is forbidden (very long story…) and Ali is donating money to support the suffering shafit women and children; unfortunately, and to Ali’s great surprise, the shafit rebels are using the money to buy arms. He’s quite ascetic, compared to his hedonistic brother and sister, and is a pretty big ass to them. Ali’s sections had some action, as he snuck the streets to meet with the rebels, and there was a lot of name-calling across the six tribes of djinn who interacted with each other in Daevabad, but there was a lot of exposition, a lot of discussion about the tribal differences with very little payout (I really can’t tell you much about the different tribes and their grievances, although one is a fire worshipping tribe and another wears drab clothing).
Ultimately, Nahri and her friend make it to Daevabad and she meets Ali, who doesn’t like or trust her at first. All of the Daeva people are thrilled to see her, but she’s reluctant to change for them; this is fine with me, but plays out really strangely. For example, she starts working as a healer, but she’s terrible at it and doesn’t practice. She laments killing patients, but only practices at the very end of the book. This dynamic of not being a good magical healer and yet doing nothing to change it takes up many pages in separate chapters, so it is obviously an important plot point, but I don’t really understand why. Towards the very end, there is some – not betrayal, but bad behavior – and a lot of action, but not really a tie up of much of the many many strands of plot. And many characters who die suddenly aren’t dead so the stakes become weird. It ends abruptly, so obviously this isn’t a standalone book.
I really loved Chakraborty’s imaginative world and how she moved Nahri from Cairo to this magical place. I love the mystical animals: shedu that shake off their stony outer shells and emerge as winged lions, peri or air elementals that present as large birds, karkadann that trample enemies, and so on. I love the descriptions of food. I love the city and the architecture and the gardens and the clothes and the descriptions of how all of the different languages sound. However, I didn’t find that the characters or the plot stood up to this wonderous environment, in part because there was just too much going on; too much intrigue that wasn’t terribly deep (for example, the princess tries, and succeeds, to get Nahri drunk on her first day in Daevabad, to humiliate her – but why and why spend so many pages on a cat fight? why can’t they become friends, as two of the very few named women in the book?), too many tribes that didn’t clearly stand on their own or advance the plot particularly, too many pages of Nahri and her Afshin traveling with little to show for it, and really, too little emotional range for any of the characters, so it was really hard for me to care.
I have written far too much on this. I am deeply disappointed and would love to hear if I should bother investing time in the next book. My thought is no.