“He’d gone pale, and she paused to listen to the pulse of his heart… Despite the graying hairs in his beard – ill-hidden by henna – and the plumpness in his belly, he suffered from nothing other than an excess of wealth. She’d be glad to help him with that.”
April. Aside from bringing with it spring flowers, sunshine, and the taste of upcoming exam season in the air, this month brought forth new reads as well. Though I started by picking up Tolstoy for the first time (stick with me to hear about that soon dear reader), when I found ‘The City of Brass’ thrust eagerly into my hands by a fellow bookworm as well, I soon realised parallel reading was not an option.
Now that isn’t to do a disservice to our Russian friend in the slightest – I found him surprisingly readable after all, and progressed faster than I thought I would on entering his world. But either Chakraborty’s world was just that little more compelling, or the prospect of borrowing such a pristine copy was too daunting for me to leave ‘The City of Brass’ unread for too long. It was the latter, in any case, which was most definitely responsible for my returning Chakraborty’s (finished) novel the next day.
And boy, what a novel.
Opening to protagonist Nahri using her unique skill set to swindle her first customer of the day, ‘The City of Brass’ transports the reader to 18th Century Egypt during its French rule, and introduces us to a sassy young woman with an answer for everything. Confronted by her customer’s brother on the illegal nature of witchcraft under the Ottomans? “… then I suppose I’m lucky the Franks are in charge…” Told the apothecary owner’s wife nearly had a heart attack on being startled awake by customers at dawn? “So buy her some jewelry with the money.” Shouldn’t perform exorcisms to make a quick buck? It’s okay! “There’s no magic, I swear… It’s nonsense, all of it.” Except there is, and it isn’t, and unbeknownst to Nahri, her play at exorcising a djinn from young girl Baseema awakens something hidden inside her, triggering a cascade of events that will take Nahri far from home, and lead her to question how much she really knows.
As someone who spent a significant amount of time buried in ‘Arabian Nights’ growing up, I have long been a fan of mystical folk tales told well, and have read enough to know the subject matter can be quite arduous to get behind when not. Luckily for us, dear reader, it is largely the former that’s true of Chakraborty’s debut. ‘The City of Brass’ tells of a compelling world of magic and intrigue far removed from our modern-day, and yet it is by drawing on themes of history, faith, and politics that Chakraborty is able to craft it. The overall result is a clever narrative, grounded in just enough familiarity to ensure the premise is easy to follow. And it is this that allows the imagination to wander, wholly embracing each fantastical element as she describes it.
Another part of the novel’s success can perhaps be attributed to the portrayal of Nahri – an entirely likeable, sassy young lady whose journey we are made to follow – and the way Chakraborty preserves characterisation surrounding first her, then later protagonists. This much, in Nahri’s case at least, is evident from relatively early on in the novel when she is confronted with the very magic whose existence she had always so surely denied.
After her pretend exorcism of Baseema, a late walk back through El Arafa: the City of the Dead sees Nahri’s path cross with the girl once again, and it is at this point that a being made of fire, and as real as the air Nahri breathes, is also described as appearing. Despite being confronted head on with the striking change to her life’s narrative the figure represents, the sass the reader is first introduced to as being a cornerstone of Nahri’s personality is something that is still wonderfully present. This is seen when, in the face of fear and almost certain imminent danger, Chakraborty shares her protagonist’s thoughts with the reader:
“Why is some lunatic fire creature speaking my language?”
“Though he didn’t look much taller than her, the vast array of weapons – enough to fight a whole troop of French soldiers – was terrifying and slightly ridiculous. Like what a little boy might don when playing at being some ancient warrior.”
But a warrior he is, and as Nahri remembers naively singing for such a djinn creature during the exorcism, they face a turn of events which throw them both together, bringing Chakraborty’s second protagonist to the fore as they do so.
It is arguably at this point that the novel truly begins, and as Chakraborty weaves her narrative web of mythical creatures, social tensions, and long-ago fought wars, another theme is presented to the reader – that of romance. Now, being a hopeless romatic myself, you’d think the inclusion of said theme would be the icing on an already delectable cake. Alas, not so. Unfortunately, this is the one aspect of Chakraborty’s novel to which I struggled to lend my imagination, as sparks between characters turn into deep rooted emotion too quickly over the course of the novel to be truly bought into.
And yet. ‘The City of Brass’ has enough mystery, and intrigue, and layered complexity, the reader is presented with a gateway to another world that is still entirely tangible. Chakraborty’s clever use of a middle-eastern setting and inclusion of varying magical elements does enough to satisfy that nostalgic craving, and ultimately, the final ensemble is more than good enough to forgive any elements found wanting. In fact such is the case, that I am now in possession of my very own copy of both ‘The City of Brass’, and the book that follows. And though I have yet to allow myself to be whisked away a second time to follow Nahri’s journey, you can bet your bottom dollar when exam season ends, her story will continue.