S.A. Chakraborty’s debut novel The City of Brass demonstrated that the mythology of the Middle East is just as fertile ground as European folklore—if not more so—for fantasy literature. The djinn, ifrit, ghouls, marid, peri, rukh, karkadann, shedu and nasnas of Islamic, Zoroastrianism and pre-Islamic folklore take the places of elves, wizards and goblins. It’s an enthralling twist on the tale of a young protagonist with powers she never knew she had discovering a world a magic she never knew existed; Nahri is a con artist on the streets of Cairo when she accidentally summons the legendary djinn warrior Darayavahoush and discovers her royal lineage in the magical city of Daevabad.
While The City of Brass introduced the fraught politics of the djinn, its sequel The Kingdom of Copper tackles the millennia of war crimes and betrayals through its three point-of-view characters—all wanting the best for their city and all harboring their own resentments and doubts. The Daeva, headed by the royal Nahid family, built and ruled the city, persecuting the shafit—human-djinn mixbloods—with cruel disdain. The Nahids were violently overthrown by the other djinn tribes, led by the Geziri, in retribution for the treatment of the shafit. But the Daevabad that Nahri—the sole surviving Nahid—finds is ruled by the iron-fisted Ghassan al Qahtani, who has little regard for the shafit living in squalor. (Spoilers for The City of Brass ahead.)
Ghassan knows Nahri’s secret, that she’s a shafit herself, and forces her to marry his eldest son Muntadhir. His second son, Alizayd, had unknowingly helped a shafit rebellion against his father and reluctantly betrayed Nahri, killing Dara at the end of the first book. The Kingdom of Copper opens with Ali chased by his fathers’ assassins and banished to a remote village; Nahri in a loveless marriage dreaming of re-opening her ancestors’ hospital for djinn and shafit alike; and Dara reincarnated in service to Nahri’s mother Manizheh, presumed dead but plotting an overthrow of the king.
No series since George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has quite captured both palace intrigue and the way that tribal infighting and war hurt the vulnerable the most. Forced to return home, Ali would prefer to settle down and help his small village flourish. Nahri just wants to be left alone to heal the city’s residents. And Dara wishes he were allowed to return to paradise and rest. But duty, anger and a desire for justice pull all three back into a struggle for power with shifting allegiances and sympathies.
Nahri’s people adore her but see the shafit as soulless abominations. Ali follows the convictions of his Islamic faith but his inflexible morals cause as many problems as they solve. And Dara’s unwavering loyalty allows for shocking levels of cruelty and destruction. It’s not a simple tale of good versus evil, but a complex web of characters believing they’re making the best choices to serve their people. Religion, family dynamics, class politics, friendships and romance all play a part and are wrapped up in unique magical world that Chakraborty brilliantly brings to life.
From its slums to its palace, the city that Chakraborty has written to life is one you won’t forget. There are no easy answers to centuries of animosity between races with differing beliefs, and she doesn’t offer them glibly. The twists and turns are surprising, setting up the next book in the Daevabad Trilogy for an epic finish.