THE CITY OF BRASS by S. A. Chakraborty – READALONG Week 1
Welcome to our Women In SFF Read-along!
If you caught our Read-along Announcement, you’ll know that for Women In SFF, the Hive are hosting a read-along of S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass.
Although it’s been on our TBR’s for some time, it’s the first time reading Chakraborty’s magical debut for Nils and myself (Beth).
We’ll be sticking to a reading schedule, which I’ll post below; we’ll be posting discussion points and questions every Wednesday via social media, and then Nils and I will be sharing our responses to these every Saturday. Be sure to follow our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to catch our Wednesday posts.
- Week 1: Beginning through Chapter 6
- Week 2: Chapter 7 – Chapter 14
- Week 3: Chapter 15 – Chapter 22
- Week 4: Chapter 23 to the end
SPOILERS AHEAD: This post is a book-club style discussion of the novel, rather than a review to tempt new readers in.
We do discuss plot points, character motivations, and twists – if you have not read the book and do not want it spoiled, please do not read further!
You can check out our reviews and interview with S. A Chakraborty here instead.
Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of 18th century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles.
But when Nahri accidentally summons an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to accept that the magical world she thought only existed in childhood stories is real. For the warrior tells her a new tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire, and rivers where the mythical marid sleep; past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises, and mountains where the circling hawks are not what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass, a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.
In that city, behind gilded brass walls laced with enchantments, behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments are simmering. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, she learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences.
After all, there is a reason they say be careful what you wish for…
Week 1: Start – Ch. 6
Welcome to Week 1 – what are our initial impressions?
Nils: From the beginning I really loved the tone of City of Brass. Chakraborty’s prose is richly detailed and atmospheric yet there is also a lightness to it. As we open with Nahri conning two brothers, making one believe he has a serious illness, and then convincing him to leave their house empty, we see she is a character with much cynicism and is rather gutsy to be able to tell bare faced lies. This made for such an entertaining first chapter.
Beth: I really felt completely swept up by that first chapter, it really is a great introduction to a character who, it’s clear straight away, is going to be larger than life. Our introduction to Nahri raised so many questions that hooked me into the story.
Nils: Yes, that opening really draws you in. Then as the narrative progresses and Nahri meets Dara, that’s when I started to become fully invested in the story: djinn, ghouls, ifrit’s, and then the icing on the cake was a goddamn flying carpet! I would like to ask that more SFF authors to include magic flying carpets please. I thoroughly enjoyed those scenes.
Beth: I was amazed by just how much happened in those initial six chapters. I didn’t feel we were rushed, and I certainly didn’t feel overwhelmed – and yet Chakraborty does manage to fit in a lot of events, a lot of magic, a lot of magical beings. So I guess my initial impression is that Chakraborty herself is some kind of literary sorceress.
In these opening six chapters we’ve been introduced to two POV characters, Nahri and Ali. Do you have a favourite?
Nils: How dare you make me choose?! I genuinely really like both characters, they may appear quite different, however I feel they share similarities too.
Beth: I mean, you don’t have to choose Nils – I said do you have a favourite, you could just say NO xD
Nils: Haha!! Well then NO, I like both!
Beth: There you go!
Nils: Nahri comes from a background of poverty, thievery, and having to hide her own magical abilities of healing. She’s learnt to become guarded and is innately morally grey because she’s had to do all she can to survive.
“It had taken her years as a child—and a number of painful lessons—to even realise how different she was from the people around her, like being the only sighted person in a world of the blind.”
Beth: See now one of the things I love most about Nahri is the fact she doesn’t think that what she can do is magic. That blew my mind a little. Of course she wouldn’t. She has never come across magic, as far as she’s aware, such a thing does not exist. So why would she think she can do magic? She just puts it down to being too clever for her own good and god isn’t that so relatable for women? Damping down your talents to avoid getting in trouble.
Nils: Absolutely awesome point, Beth. I hadn’t thought about her not even knowing that her abilities are due to magic.
Whereas Prince Ali is born into privilege. His father is the King of Daevastana, so he comes from a very powerful family. Despite this Ali doesn’t appear spoiled, petulant or even a person who enjoys power, for which I’m grateful for. It’s nice to see a character who would rather use his influence and wealth for good, rather than in a selfish manner. In his opening chapters we see him show sympathy for the shafit (half djinn/half human) race, and although it ends in disaster, he does try to help them.
Beth: I definitely feel more drawn to Nahri, but that’s no fault of Ali’s. Although, every time we came to one of his chapters, I did hear Robin Williams singing in my head.
Nils: Thanks Beth, now I can hear Robin Williams singing too!!
Beth: Priiiiiiince AAAAAAAALIIIII HANDSOME IS HE…
What I did find interesting about him is that, although he’s a Prince, he seems very much to be a lesser one? When we first meet him, he doesn’t live in the Palace, he lives in the barracks. But of course that’s a choice, so there is still plenty of privilege there.
Nils: Yet the similarities I saw between both characters were in their loneliness, and how they both held great secrets. Although both characters are surrounded by people, none of those people actually truly understand or know them.
Beth: That’s such an excellent point Nils, I hadn’t actually considered Ali’s loneliness and compared his situation with that of Nahri’s.
Likewise, we’ve been introduced to two very different cities, Cairo and Daevabad. They couldn’t be more different… and yet, look deeper and there are plenty of similarities. Thoughts?
Nils: Firstly how beautifully does Chakraborty describe both cities? You can really picture the bazaar in Cairo, the chaotic press of people, the noise and the smell of richly spiced food.
Beth: I felt utterly transported! My favourite though was the apothecary shop, I loved how she brought that so completely to life.
“Crowded with supplies and impossibly chaotic, Yaqub’s shop was her favourite place in the world. Mismatched wooden shelves crammed with dusty glass vials, tiny reed baskets , and crumbling ceramic jars covered the walls. Lengths of dried herbs, animal parts, and objects she couldn’t identify hung from the ceiling while clay amphorae competed for the small amount of floor space. Yaqub knew his inventory like the lines of his palms, and listening to his stories of ancient Magi or the hot spice lands of the Hind transported her to worlds she could hardly imagine.”
Nils: Then there’s this description of Daevabad, which made me fall in love with the city:
“Fog shrouded the great city of brass, obscuring its towering minarets of sandblasted glass and hammered metal and veiling its golden domes. Rain seeped off the jade roofs of marble palaces and flooded its stone streets, condensing on the placid faces of its ancient Nahid founders memorialised on the murals covering its mighty walls”
Beth: Such a beautiful description!
Nils: Although Daevabad seems more lavishly decorated, with beautiful architecture, and appears to be a more regimented and an orderly city than Cairo, underneath the surface both cities hold much corruption. In Cairo magic is outlawed under Ottoman’s rule and those with magic are forced to hide it or risk banishment. In Daevabad the shafit are oppressed and often have their children kidnapped.
Beth: What struck me was that both cities seemed to be such a mix of cultures and traditions, all trying to live in one place but inevitably stepping on each other’s toes. And in both cities, there are long histories of fighting between the various people occupying them, again leading to plenty of potential for friction.
How do we feel about Suleiman’s seal and the ring? Was he right to limit the Daeva’s powers and split them into six different tribes? Do we have any theories on where we think the ring is now?
Nils: In a way I can see the need to control the Deava’s: all-powerful creatures meddling with non-powerful humans is definitely a dangerous thing to let continue without some sort of limitations.
Beth: I couldn’t help but think of Greek mythology at that point!
Nils: Oh yes! Great shout! It’s very much like the meddling Greek Gods isn’t it?
However, I think Suleiman took his power too far, as did the Nahids. By splitting the Daeva’s into six tribes, segregating them to different lands, and taking away the majority of their magical abilities, he purposely created a rift and eventually civil war, but was it really an effective way ro distract the Daeva’s from humans? I mean the shafit population still grew, and although many obeyed Suleiman’s and the Nahids law, a fair few rebelled and started an uprising, which resulted in devastation. Whether or not Suleiman had good intentions or not remains to be discovered, but I believe he wasn’t helping to solve the problem, rather he created new ones.
Beth: Oh absolutely, and it was interesting to get the different perspectives on the story. I had the impression that Suleiman was following orders, but it’ll be interesting to see if we get any revelations with regards to the story, whether the history is truly as it seems. I hope we do, that’s the kind of twist I love in a story – “the history our society is built upon was a lie??”
Nils: I’ve heard there are some twists along the way, so let’s hope so!
My theory for the ring is that Nahri has it somewhere in her possessions but doesn’t even know it yet. What about you, Beth?
Beth: Oh that’s an interesting theory! I’m not sure she would have anything on her person that she hasn’t tried to pawn to be fair.
Nils: Actually, that’s true!!
Beth: I don’t really have any theories on the ring, but I do have theories on the Nahids – I’m highly suspicious of this story that the ifrits were the ones to kill them off. My money is on the King who’s living a cwshty life in their palace.
There are hints that Nahri is attracted to Dara, how do we feel about that?
Beth: SHIP SHIP SHIP
Nils: Oh good, because I quite like the subtle tension and growing attraction too. As we get a POV from Nahri, her attraction is made more certain, for example through her thoughts here:
“She wondered if Daeva bodies were like those of humans: full of blood and humors, a beating heart and swelling lungs. Or perhaps they were smoke through and through, their appearance only an illusion.
Closing her eyes, she stretched her fingers towards him and tried to concentrate. It would’ve been better to touch him, but she didn’t dare.”
We see how Dara ignited curiosity in her and made her want physical contact with someone. This is something which we’ve not really seen from her character before as she is very guarded around people. But does Dara reciprocate it? Perhaps he does to some extent, yet I doubt his prejudice towards her kind will waver for a while yet. It’ll be interesting to see how things develop.
Beth: I’m certainly looking forward to seeing how things will develop. It seems they’re both highly flawed and damaged people who need someone to trust; yet should it be each other? They both need kindness in their lives, but I also feel the both have such strong potential to accidentally hurt the other, be it through Nahri’s need to be free, or Dara’s secret past…
Nahri and Dara both grew up without their families, how do we feel this has shaped their characters?
Nils: It most definitely made Nahri a resilient, independent character, who has faced hardship and carried on surviving despite this. We don’t really know much about her parents yet, so I’m hoping we’ll discover more of her backstory as the novel progresses.
Beth: It’s as if she doesn’t really question it… Or simply doesn’t communicate it as a means of protecting herself. I have so many questions as a reader – did her parents know what they were? – and yet I don’t necessarily get the impression that she has questions. I think she’s much more forward looking, focused on her desire for what she wants to become, than looking back at what she was and where she came from.
Nils: Perhaps she finds it too painful to look back and therefore suppresses it?
Whereas I think it has turned Dara into a slightly bitter character.
Beth: Only slightly?!
Nils: Ok, a very bitter character!! He shows a lot of prejudice towards shafit and hatred for some of the other tribes, it is understandably so as both races were the cause of his family’s deaths, but I think he lets this rule his emotions too much, which may lead him into strife. Having said that maybe he is starting to learn to let go a little too, in his growing friendship with Nahri perhaps they are both shaping each other into more tolerant people.
Beth: I’m still somewhat confused about Dara to be honest, I think I may need to re-read some sections as I’m not sure on how his connections to which tribes work and why he’s laid this self-banishment upon himself?
Nils: I don’t think he’s fully revealed his reasons yet. He’s still hiding quite a lot.
Beth: Good point Nils, I think there’ll be an awful lot of revelations in store. Does he still have family in Daevabad? He calls himself a Daeva, not a Djinn, but there are the tribe of Daeva living in Daevabad (that Ali doesn’t think highly of – I don’t think they’re going to get on well together when eventually these threads come together)
Our first week of reading ended on quite a dramatic note. How did we feel about Anas’ death? How do you think Ali is going to earn this?
Nils: Anas’s death was a shocker! The Karkadann beast was so brutal.
Beth: I’m also currently reading The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, and there’s a scene in that where a group of people are punished through execution by crushing and an elephant is used – The Karkadann reminded me a great deal of that, of using a large beast as executioner. After a quick search online, apparently execution by elephant was a genuine capital punishment, so as brutal as it was, it was interesting to have that note of authenticity in a magical city with mythical beings. It made it that much more sobering to reflect on how much more brutal reality has been than fantasy.
Nils: I’m reading The Jasmine Throne too and now be prepared for that scene! I hadn’t realised that death by an animal was an authentic aspect but that’s definitely a great touch. I always like when authors blend some realism or historical context with fantasy.
I think that scene was significant too because it showed just how bad the situation for shafits is. Anas was willing to die fighting rather than risk his Tanzeem being discovered and all their work towards helping the shafit come undone. It was only at the point that Ali was going to speak up to his father in defence of Anas that Anas began provoking King Ghassan’s temper by insulting him. Anas sacrificed himself before Ali could do anything to help.
Beth: That was heart-breaking, wasn’t it. There’s very much the sense that the shafit are lesser beings due to their human contamination, and yet he displays so much more strength than the djinn would ever give a shafit credit for.
Nils: Absolutely. I believe Ali will use his power and privilege to help carry on the Tanzeem’s mission. How much he’ll be able to go against his father though is another thing entirely.
Beth: I am very much looking forward to how far Ali is going to be pushed, and what eventually makes him snap. Although, after the moment where he’s shown the stockpiled weapons, I can’t tell in which direction he is going to snap.
‘He sighed. “Then we’ll need to make our own exit.” He jerked his head at the surrounding mausoleums. “Do you think I can find a rub in any of these buildings?”
“A rug? How is a rug going to help us?” ‘
Nils and Beth: A MAGIC CARPET!!!
‘It was the type of morning that sent most djinn scurrying indoors like cats fleeing rain, back to beds of smoky silk brocade and warm mates, burning away the hours until the sun reemerged hot and proper to scald the city to life.’
‘Ali pressed his zulfiqar’s scabbard. Anas met his stare. His eye flashed, the briefest of warnings before he dropped he gaze again.
Earn this. Ali remembered his sheikh’s last command.’
We hope you enjoyed our first discussion – we absolutely loved this action-packed non-stop opener!