There has been much ink (actual and digital) spilled in recent years about just how white fantasy is. Almost every orphan boy (and it’s usually an orphan boy) who rises to become the hero of the realm has been white, and the realm he becomes a hero of is usually some version of Western Europe, but with dragons – and magic, elves, and whatever other fantasy trope/s the author chooses to employ. If non-white people do appear, they are cast as the villains: barbarian hordes. perhaps, or evil warlords intent on enslaving the otherwise peaceful lands the protagonist calls home. Occasionally, an inscrutable “Oriental” wise man or wizard will put in a brief appearance, or perhaps the protagonist will befriend some wandering tribal people whose customs and traditions are suspiciously like an amalgamation of every single Native American stereotype the author had ever heard of.
What this does is distort the view of the fantasy genre as a whole. For the very longest time, it seemed like only white boys and white men had a right to the grand adventures so often depicted in fantasy, while white women and people of colour have been forced to mutilate their sense of themselves in order to fit into the shell of a white boy or a white man – that, or not participate in the creation and consumption of fantasy at all. It felt like all of fantasy fiction was blurring together, a series of white male heroes and magical Western European worlds all smudging into a boring, beige landscape: the genre equivalent of bland oatmeal.
Fortunately, that has been changing recently, as more and more authors of colour are becoming more prominent not just in fantasy, but in other genre fiction as well. Protagonists are no longer just white boys or white men, but increasingly they are people of colour: men, women, girls, boys, and sometimes (hopefully more frequently eventually) trans, gender-fluid, or non-binary.
This shift in protagonists also applies to the settings. No longer limited to just the mythological and folkloric landscapes of Western and Northern Europe, more and more fantasy novels are set in fantasy equivalents of places like East Asia (R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War series), the Indian subcontinent (Tasha Suri’s The Books of Ambha series), Africa (Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch series) and the Middle East (Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon). As a result, it is becoming increasingly easier to avoid the tedium of carbon-copy worlds and protagonists; there is such a variety of new worlds to explore, new people to imagine oneself into.
S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass is one of this new class of fantasy novels. First in The Daevabad Trilogy, it starts out in 18th-century Cairo, where the protagonist, Nahri, is a talented con artist who scams wealthy Ottoman nobles for a living. Her cons consist mostly of what she thinks is mystical claptrap: palm readings, traditional healing, and ritual dances called zars, which are supposed to exorcise those who have been possessed by the djinn. It’s not an easy life, but Nahri lives it anyway, moving from grift to grift and con to con, trying to scrounge together enough money so she can finally do what she’s always wanted: buy her way into a medical school so she can learn proper medicine and be a real healer.
But all her plans are thrown aside when, during a zar she conducts as part of one of her cons, she summons a group of evil djinn called ifrit, who are determined to end her life right where she stands. Fortunately, the zar also summons another djinni named Dara, who protects her from the ifrit, but also tells her that she is more than she seems. According to Dara, Nahri is not just human, but half-djinn – and that for her safety, they must both flee to the magical city of Daevabad, the City of Brass. There, Nahri must not only cope with a whole new magical world and the truth of her heritage, but also the brewing political turmoil that simmers in the courts and bazaars of Daevabad – a turmoil centuries in the making, and one that Nahri’s presence may cause to explode into a full-blown conflagration.
I first became interested in this novel because of its setting. I think most people of my generation were first introduced to the idea of genies through Disney’s Aladdin animated movie, but I eventually learned that Robin Willams’ happy-go-lucky Genie was nothing like the original djinn: dangerous, volatile entities whose ability to grant wishes is but a small part of their powers. In Islamic mythology, the term “djinn” applies to a race of entities God created from fire, and who roamed the world before humans. In many ways, these djinn are actually like humans in that they have the same strengths and failings of character, as well as mortality, but are faster, stronger, and live longer.
The author draws upon this mythology, but builds upon it by incorporating another angle: the fact that in Islam, the term “djinn” can be used to refer to other, similar entities from other religions and mythologies outside of Islam. Therefore, an angel (especially of the Christian and Jewish variety) would be considered a djinn; so would a Zoroastrian daeva. In the novel this has given rise to the six races of djinn who live in Daevabad and who populate the djinn world: a reflection of the multicultural reality of the Islamic world. It is an excellent reminder (or introduction, as the case may be) to the reader that Islam and the peoples that subscribe to it are not just limited to the Middle East: that the Islamic community in fact encompasses peoples and cultures from around the world. Consider the following excerpt:
But Ali’s parents’ marriage had been…a political match meant to strengthen the alliance between the Geziri and the Ayaanle tribes. It was a strange, often strained, alliance. The Ayaanle were a wealthy people who prized scholarship and trade, rarely leaving the fine coral palaces and sophisticated salons of Ta Ntry, their homeland on the East African coast. In contrast, Am Gezira, with its heart in the most desolate deserts of southern Arabia, must have seemed a wasteland, its forbidding sands filled with wandering poets and illiterate warriors.
… Ali resembled his mother’s people so strikingly that it would have provoked gossip had his father not been king. He shared their lanky height and black skin, his stern mouth and sharp cheeks near replicas of his mother’s. All he’d inherited from his father was his dark steel eyes. …
This is a small illustration of the diversity of djinn society in the novel, and can be considered a mirror of the diversity of the real world’s Muslim community. It might not immediately occur to a reader to think of a djinni with black features, but there have been Muslim communities in Africa almost since the religion came into existence. Aside from the well-known Muslim countries of North Africa like Egypt and Morocco, there were and are many Muslim communities throughout the African continent. So to have a djinni with black features should be no less surprising than a djinni with Middle Eastern features, or a djinni with South Asian or even East Asian features. Any region of the world with a historical and/or significant Muslim community is likely represented in the novel by a djinn tribe, even if a member of that tribe has yet to make an appearance as a character.
This diversity extends to the practice of religion as well. Many non-Muslims (especially those who live in largely mono-ethnic communities) have little to no idea of the kind of diversity of practice that occurs in the Muslim world. Aside from the differences between Shia, Sunni, and a whole host of smaller movements, there are also regional, cultural, and individual differences. Oftentimes, a group or populace’s pre-existing beliefs would syncretise with Islamic practice when they converted to the religion, thus turning what would otherwise be a strange, foreign faith into something they were more familiar and comfortable with; this would then help the new religion gain more adherents and, therefore, more power and cultural acceptability in a new community. Over the hundreds of years that Islam has existed as a religion, this has created immense variety in terms of the rituals, conventions, and practices that Muslims perform and participate in the world over.
This diversity of practice is shown in several instances throughout the novel, and not just among the djinn, either. Take a look at the following excerpt:
… The neighborhood was crowded; the French invasion had done little to stop the waves of people coming to Cairo from the countryside. The new migrants arrived with little more than the clothing on their backs and the traditions of their ancestors, traditions often denounced as perversions by some of the city’s more irritated imams.
The zars were certainly denounced as such. Like belief in magic, belief in possession was widespread in Cairo, blamed for everything from a young bride’s miscarriage to an old woman’s lifelong dementia. Zar ceremonies were held to placate the spirit and heal the afflicted woman. And while Nahri didn’t believe in possession, the basketful of coins and the free meal earned by the kodia, the woman who led the ceremony, were too tempting to pass up. And so, after spying on a number of them, she started hosting her own—albeit extremely abbreviated—version.
The zar (properly: zār) ritual has an uncertain history, but scholars generally agree that the practice is likely African, specifically Ethiopian, in origin, though the name itself is Persian, and that it was spread via the harems maintained by officials and wealthy individuals in Ottoman Egypt. It is, therefore, not a part of what might be considered “standard” Islamic practice, being limited largely to Egypt and neighbouring countries. While Islam has its own exorcism ritual, it should come as no surprise that other communities and cultures might have their own rituals already in place, and continue to use those rituals syncretically with Islam.
The excerpt also illustrates that for many Muslims, belief and the practice of belief is a very individual thing. Some Muslims are very pious and therefore strict about their adherence to the tenets of their faith, but there are also people like Nahri for whom the belief and practice of Islam is nothing more than a means to an end. This book reminds the reader that it is wrong to assume that all Muslims are like the rabid fanatics conservative media so often likes to put front-and-centre as representatives of what is, in fact, a nuanced and varied faith.
This rich worldbuilding makes an excellent backdrop for some fascinating characters. Nahri is a woman after my own heart: clever and tough, with a keen instinct for survival and an eye to the main chance, but with a protective streak for those she cares about. She also has a clear sense of justice that shows itself in some rather amusing ways, as the following excerpt shows:
… She didn’t have many Turkish clients; they were too snobbish. Indeed, when the Franks and Turks weren’t fighting over Egypt, the only thing they seemed to agree on was that the Egyptians couldn’t govern themselves. God forbid. It’s not as though the Egyptians were the inheritors of a great civilization whose mighty monuments still littered the land. Oh, no. They were peasants, superstitious fools who ate too many beans.
Well, this superstitious fool is about to swindle you for all you’re worth, so insult away. Nahri smiled as the men approached.
The above excerpt (which comes from the novel’s first chapter) made me giggle pleasantly while reading it, and ensured that I would really like Nahri as a character. I find it difficult not to be charmed by a character whose idea of revenge is scamming the people who look down on her and her culture. It’s something I would do, if I had to, to be honest.
Another fascinating character is Ali. He is, in many ways, Nahri’s opposite: born the privileged second son of the King of the Djinn, he has the kind of power and influence that Nahri could only dream of acquiring. He is also very pious, sincerely believing in the Prophet’s words and living according to its strictest tenets. He also believes that the rather harsh brand of justice espoused by Islam’s more fundamentalist philosophies ought to apply to everyone, no matter their place in society or their bloodline:
… “Who will serve as Qaid while he’s gone?”
Kaveh went pale. “My king, Prince Alizayd is a child. He’s not even close to his first quarter century. You cannot possibly entrust the city’s security to a sixteen—”
“Eighteen,” Muntadhir corrected with a wicked grin. “Come now, Grand Wazir, there’s an enormous difference.”
… “Eighteen-year-old boy. A boy who—might I remind you—once had a Daeva nobleman whipped in the street like a common shafit thief!”
“He was a thief,” Ali defended. … “God’s law applies equally to all.”
The grand wazir took a breath. “Trust me, Prince Alizayd, it is my deep disappointment that you are not in Paradise where we all follow God’s law…” … “But under Daevabad’s law, the shafit are not equal to purebloods.” He looked imploringly to the king. “Did you not just have someone executed for saying much the same thing?”
“I did,” Ghassan agreed. “A lesson you would do well to remember, Alizayd. The Qaid enforces my law, not his own beliefs.”
Given these inclinations it is easy for the reader to dislike Ali on a purely instinctual level; I find zealots deeply unlikeable, and I am certain many readers will agree with me on that point. But as the story progresses it becomes clear that underneath Ali’s zealotry is a heart of purest gold; he truly thinks that strict adherence to the words of the Prophet will bring about a world where everyone can live good lives free of pain and injustice. He sees Islam as a levelling force, one that brings down the prideful and corrupt while uplifting the humble and the virtuous. His black-and-white worldview might chafe the reader at first, and it will continue to chafe as the reader progresses through the story, but it is difficult to continue disliking Ali when it becomes clear that he really, sincerely wants to be a good person and help as many people as he can – it’s just that the world is not so clear-cut as he thinks it is. I find that reading about characters like him – characters whose worldview I don’t generally agree with but who turn out to be surprisingly sympathetic – is a rather enjoyable experience, and I am certain other readers will agree.
It is through Ali’s storyline and the tail end of Nahri’s that the core themes of this novel come into play. Ali has always believed that what he was taught as a child is true, but over the course of the story it becomes clear that what he has always believed is truth, is actually littered with lies. There is a moment in the middle portion of the novel, when Ali learns of a particularly brutal secret connected to his clan’s rise to power in the djinn world:
“Then why do all this?”
… “You think it was Abba’s decision? Look at how old some of these bodies are. … You must know the things people used to say about [them], that they could change their faces, swap forms, resurrect each other from ash…”
“Rumors,” … “Propaganda. Any scholar could—“
“It doesn’t matter,” … “They kept records, they verified the bodies. We might have won the war, but at least some of our ancestors were so frightened of [them], they literally kept their bodies to reassure themselves that they were truly dead.”
I am not sure if the way this echoes with the numbering and careful recording of Holocaust victims was intentional, but those are the echoes I heard when I read the scene this excerpt comes from. But it says a lot about how much the victors can alter history, how much they can twist the narrative so that outright lies can become truth. The Nazis were never able to get that far, but if they had, it is easy to imagine the lengths they might have gone to in order to manipulate the way history remembers them.
There is another scene that echoes this one, but it is towards the end of the novel and so I cannot quote it here for fear of spoilers. But suffice to say that in that scene, certain characters learn that one of the surest paths to victory is controlling how information is perceived; whether history, news, or rumour, those who control what is accepted as truth and what is rejected as false are capable of shaping not just the present, but the future as well. Given today’s political and media climate, when fake news runs rampant and what ought to be considered incontrovertible facts are suddenly up for debate, this reminder about the power of information is very timely indeed.
However, despite all of the above, this book still has a rather disappointing flaw: its romance. As I have said elsewhere I do not take any issue with stories that incorporate a romantic thread into their plots, but those romances have to be executed well for me to enjoy them. Unfortunately, the romance in this novel has not been executed well at all. It was initially entertaining, even plausible (though I admit I was stretching a bit), but as the novel progressed it became irritating. The romance happens too quickly, built as it is on very shaky ground consisting mostly of mutual attraction and unresolved sexual tension. That is not very good ground for a romance, and it does an immense disservice to the other key relationship of this novel: a wonderful friendship built on altered perspectives and shared understanding. It does not matter how hot (pun unintended) one half of a couple is; if the connection between two people in a romantic relationship does not move beyond misinterpretations of the “but you said!” variety and wanting to vigorously bone each other, and on to building a true connection based on important things like mutual trust and compassion, then that romance is sadly shallow.
Overall, The City of Brass is a mostly enjoyable read. The setting is fantastic and backed up by excellent worldbuilding, and it is populated by intriguing characters and tells an excellent (if occasionally unevenly-paced) story, all of which surround themes about the nature of truth and how the powerful can rewrite not just history, but what is accepted as fact. Unfortunately, all of those wonderful aspects are marred by a poorly-handled romance, one that some more forgiving readers might find interesting at first, but which soon devolves into something akin to the un-nuanced “romances” portrayed in the more abysmal examples of young adult fiction that have cropped up in the past several years. If the reader is willing to overlook that potential deal breaker – and I will admit, it is a big one – then perhaps they will find joy in all the other, positive aspects of this novel. I hope, though, that the flaws of the romantic plot line are resolved in the subsequent books of this series, because it would be an immense pity to have what is otherwise a cracking good fantasy series be so badly marred.