Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The City of Brass - S.A. Chakraborty

So, The City of Brass. It’s the story of a young girl who makes her living on the streets, grifting where she can, putting money away for an ambitious future she’s struggling to reach. It’s a story of djinn, those magical creatures at the edge of humanity’s vision, who perform startling deeds for both good and evil ends. It’s a story of giant birds, of fire and water, of hard-faced duels fought for love and honour. It begins in 18th century Cairo, and evokes that place and time wonderfully, cloaking its story in the myths and tales that float through that city’s air like smoke.

We enter this world first through the city of Cairo – or at least partsof it. Not the especially nice parts, either. The slums are thriving places though, in their own way, with an energy and a buzz which leaps off the page. The divide between the rich and poor is here to be seen, as Ottoman rulers stride into darkened alleyways backed up by bands of bodyguards, and those they seek quail at the sight of them. It’s a baroque blend of absolute rule and poverty, mixed with a history of trade, resistance and revolution. As the protagonist cuts deals and navigates the narrow streets, the city comes alive – from the towering palaces, through the humble homes of workers and merchants, to the elaborate, decaying cemeteries gently smouldering in the midday sun.
The rest of the world, as it unfolds during the story, is imagined equally vividly. There’s a sense of the mythic pervading the text which mixes well with a sense of history invoked by some of the characters. This is a world sitting on a solid foundation, and it builds on the myths and legends of the period to create something new, something with wit and sparkle, backed by a sense of honesty in the relationships between the characters.

Which reminds me – the characters. Nahri, our protagonist, is a young woman treading on the poverty line on the streets of Cairo. Nahri is an absolute delight – smart, pragmatic, and unwilling to sacrifice her agency. Watching her play out a con game on her marks, her effortless charm backed with internal caution gave a marvellous perspective. Thrown headlong into a world of the fantastic and magical, she adapts well and swiftly. If out of her depth, she’s nonetheless effective, and determined – a thoroughly sympathetic, if occasionally amoral centrepiece for the text. In this she’s backed by a djinn with a past he’s keeping hidden – a warrior of superlative skill, scarred, enslaved and possibly broken by his experiences. The text gives a nuanced portrayal of a soul in pain, and of a person out of time, struggling to readjust their attitudes with contemporary mores. To be fair, he also hits things very hard with a sword, and occasional magical fire, so it’s not all emotional exploration. Then there’s a prince of this people, a member of the ruling class, wrapped in devotion, of a sort, but with a compassion at odds with the ruthlessness required of a ruling family. As a naïve younger son, with the intelligence and self-awareness to become something more, he’s a masterclass in characterisation, and in walking the delicate path between power and exile, evokes our sympathy along with some disquiet in the acceptance of social mores.

The plot – well, it’s snappy, and diverse. There’s a heck of a lot of political intrigue, and shadowy actions. Mysterious antagonists hunting Nahri down, that sort of thing. Power struggles in palaces, and disruption of established society. Then there’s the history, stories of epic wars in the past, ancestral grudges going back through generations. Personal stories, as Nahri and her entourage try and work out what they value – their goals, each other, or some portion of both. The heart in it is extraordinary – the ties that bind the unlikely groups together, and their reactions to loss, sympathy, victory and sacrifice are likely to bring a tear to the eye. But don’t worry – there’s epic magic and duels aplenty as well – fast paced, kinetic struggles for life and limb, lit by the flames of the occasional fireball. It’s breakneck stuff when the action threatens, laced with thoughtful, nuanced, vital portrayals of the characters which makes you are about them and the stakes – and keeps you turning every page.

On that basis – well drawn characters, original, intriguing world, punchy plot – I’d say this one’s worth a try.

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