THE CITY OF BRASS by S. A. Chakraborty – READALONG Week 3
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 3: Ch. 15 – Ch. 22
This week’s reading opened with a bang! The king has been stirring up trouble that culminated in an attempt to sack the Daeva quarter, with his guards arriving just in time.
Authors often say that SFF allows us to confront issues in our own world – what did we make of the racial tensions between the shafit, the daeva, and the djinn, and what parallels can be drawn with our own world?
Beth: This week’s chapters really made me stop and think about colonialism, particularly in this opening chapter but also in later chapters when we discover that the ruling tribe have made little attempt to learn the language of those they’ve conquered, or attempt to understand or respect their culture at all.
Nils: That’s such a good point, Beth. The ruling tribe did absolutely nothing to ease the tensions between their races. King Ghassan says he wants peace in Daevabad, yet his actions result in the very opposite. The question is what does he stand to gain from this unrest? Because very much like the leaders in our world, they always look to their own profits before they strive for the good of their people.
Beth: Exactly Nils. It seems important to him to keep the Daeva tribe happy; does he fear them still? Or is it a case of keeping the tribes divided because then they’re weaker?
The microcosm of Daevabad reflects that of the Middle East, with its displaced tribes and convoluted histories written and rewritten by the conquerors. Clashes of language and of faiths. They may be higher beings who look down upon humans, but their enmities are so painfully human.
Nils: Yes, these characters very much reflect human flaws, don’t they? The leaders are selfish and manipulative, whilst the population are easily provoked and angered. For example, very much like the situation in the Middle East, Daevabad is constantly on the brink of an all out war, many of the people are living in poverty, oppressed, and women’s rights much like the rights of the shafit are non-existent. Chakraborty gives us many parallels to consider, showing us that whenever people become powerful, whenever ignorance reigns over tolerance, corruption and prejudices will always follow.
Beth: Perfectly put Nils!
Nils: Side note: not to take away from the seriousness of this question, but I’d just like to say how much I loved the archer Jamshid riding an elephant and saving Dara’s life. How cool was that scene Beth?!
Beth: To be fair Nils, it was an awesome scene! I loved the shedu coming to life, the way Nahri noticed them shivering!
Chapter 16 and Nahri’s introduction to the King brought plenty of twists and revelations. How did you think this was going to go down? What do you make of Nahri’s curse? Do you have any theories about Nahri’s mother?
Beth: I was absolutely expecting the King to imprison her, as I thought his family had been the ones to kill Nahri’s family…
Nils: I’m with you there, Beth. I thought exactly the same thing.
Beth: I think I’ve managed to confuse myself along the way somewhere. I thought the Gaziris had killed the Nahids. So I was relieved when Nahri had the reception she did, and then suspicious. It would make sense that he would want control over the people that could heal everyone else; when you seize control of anywhere, you do so for the resources, and I think the Nahids were seen very much as a resource to be policed. There were plenty of hints dropped that the King was romantically attached to but scorned by Nahri’s mother, so I’m looking forward to learning the truth about her “death”, and who Nahri’s father might be.
Nils: Nahri’s father is a puzzle that has me very intrigued! At first I thought maybe King Ghassan might be her father, but I no longer hold that theory because there is no way he’d encourage a union between Nahri and his son Mutandhir, if there was any possibility of her being his.
Beth: I’d hope not at least… He seemed genuinely angry by the thought Manizeh had slept with someone, as if she’d refused him but someone else was obviously good enough…
Nils: Yes, there was a hint of jealousy there. I am very suspicious of him being seemingly hospitable of Nahri and Dara – previously Ghassan and Mutandhir had both been expressing their fear of how powerful the Nahids and the Afshin once were, so I very much doubt that threat has passed them by now. I’m positive they will both be manipulated and controlled so as to not become too powerful and threaten the king’s rulership.
Beth: I agree with you Nils, I definitely think control is the name of the game here!
Nils: As for Nahri’s curse, here’s my theory: King Ghassan sees Nahri’s true self, she is in fact a pureblood Daeva, and her mother’s curse is that everyone else sees Nahri as shafit.
Beth: I did wonder if maybe the curse is that only the king would see her as pureblood so that it protects her… but then I think your theory makes much more sense when you consider how much magic she can do.
Do we believe the King will treat Nahri fairly, as though she is one of the family if the king gets his wish and she marries Mutandhir?
Beth: Well, along the lines of what I said above, I think the King sees Nahri as a commodity. I think she’ll be effectively imprisoned and used. I don’t for a second think she’ll have any kind of equality in the palace; the nature of her ancestry won’t allow for that, with one tribe worshipping her, and the other conquering her, there’ll be no middle ground for Nahri! Zaynab certainly doesn’t seem to want to treat her like one of the family, does she Nils?
Nils: Oh absolutely not, she made her feelings towards Nahri quite clear, before she even got a chance to know her! I’m not sure I like Zaynab now, she seems a bit of a shit-stirrer and a bully.
Beth: I’m kind of disappointed on that score, I hope we eventually get to see why she’s like this! Is it as simple as that she’s a spoiled brat, or has she been twisted by court life? I hope her character is more complicated than that.
Nils: I’m with you on this Beth, I don’t for one minute believe that any of the royal tribe will treat Nahri with any level of equality. In fact the only one who may come to Nahri’s defence is Ali.
Beth: Ah of course! And yet, I can see that relationship being complicated by jealousy…
Can we just take a moment to appreciate Chakraborty’s worldbuilding? Was there anything in particular this week that struck you?
Beth: I think Nahri’s reaction to the garden was quite possibly one of the most beautiful parts of the book so far.
Flowers in near violent hues – a crimson that shone like blood, a speckled indigo like a starry night – bloomed across the ground. A pair of spiky date palms glittered in the sun before her, made entirely of glass, she realised, their plump fruit a golden jewel.
Nils: Oh such a beautifully vivid and atmospheric scene, Beth!
Beth: I loved Nahri’s sense of amazement and the way she drank in this beauty surrounding her. It really emphasised her past and her background in which she’d never had the privilege of having time to meander through beautiful gardens.
Nils: My favourite scene was when Nahri visits the Temple of her ancestors. Her sense of awe, all the culture and tradition she comes from and the realisation of the weight of her history and how important her race once was, it was such a symbolic scene.
“A little apprehensive, Nahri crossed the threshold, entering a small, circular room barely the size of her wardrobe. She stilled, taken aback by an air of solemnity so thick she could almost feel it upon her shoulders.”
Beth: Yes Nils! This was another favourite scene in this week’s reading for me! Again, Chakraborty’s writing here is beautiful, but like you said it’s such a symbolic moment for Nahri, it was such an emotionally weighted scene. Truly fantastic writing.
Dara warns Nahri how dangerous Ali is and Ali warns Nahri how dangerous Dara is. Who do we believe is the biggest threat between the two? Would either of them actually intentionally harm Nahri?
Beth: Um, how amazing was their fight? I think it proved that they are both equally dangerous.
Nils: SO AMAZING! Oh my god, I really loved those flaming swords!
Beth: Dara is perhaps more obviously dangerous, the fact he has such a strong command over magic, that Ali both seemed to fear and yet take for granted. However, Ali is also very dangerous, but for a very different reason. His family seem to be evolving and getting used to being rulers, moving away from the traditions and ideals of their tribe, moving closer to those they conquered. But Ali, as Dara points out, is different:
I was starting to wonder what happened to the Qahtanis I knew… starting to fear my memories of the zulfiqar-wielding fanatics who destroyed my world were wrong.” He eyed Ali. “Thank you for this reminder.”
In this regard, I think they both have the capacity to hurt Nahri – just not intentionally. I think there’s a great deal of potential for her to be caught in the crossfire of their politics and ancient enmities.
Nils: I agree Beth, although I believe both of these characters genuinely care for Nahri, they both hold the ability to hurt her unintentionally. I think their hate towards each other blinds them.
Beth: oh good point Nils, they both definitely care a great deal for her.
Nils: I do think Dara is the most powerful and therefore dangerous too – the Afshin after all were the protectors of the Nahids and the Nahids had given them back a significant amount of their powers, so there is a genuine reason they are feared. Plus Dara has been a slave to the ifrit for decades, so there is also the effect of that which may mean he’s far more unstable than Ali is. In this week’s chapters I have to say Dara’s newfound attitude was quite entertaining, wasn’t it Beth?!
Beth: It really was Nils! There’s certainly something different about him, now he’s back in Daevabad. He also hinted here and there that he feels something different, I’m looking forward to discovering what that might reveal. I do worry about his potential instability though. What will happen if his memories come crashing back? What if they drive him mad?
Be careful what you wish for
Nahri has always wished to be trained by the greatest healers. Now she is given free reign to heal, and given training and access to the equipment she needs to do so, it all seems too much. What do we make of Nahri’s crisis of self this week?
Nils: I’m actually feeling quite sorry for Nahri, I mean yes, in Cairo being a healer had been her only real goal in life, and now that had become a reality in Daevabad, a city where her ancestors were once the greatest healers in existence, I don’t blame her for buckling under that pressure.
Beth: That’s where I’m at too, I really felt for her this week. There’s a lot of pressure, but also there’s a lot to take in. She’s come such a long way in such a short period of time, her life has been turned upside down, she’s had to re-evaluate everything she thought she knew… And now this one thing she thought she knew has also been twisted on its head.
Nils: Exactly, it’s no wonder she’s doubting herself. I don’t think Nahri lacks the ability to be a powerful healer, I believe she lacks the confidence. Once she starts to believe in herself, I bet her healing powers will flourish.
Beth: Yes Nils, I 100% agree with you. She’s in the realm of the unknown and she can’t see how she fits in this world yet, she can’t reconcile being the person she was with the person she’s discovered she is. I can’t wait to see her crack this though. It’ll be explosive!
Ali helps Nahri unlock her magical powers this week, and although so far we’ve only seen her conjure a flame, how powerful do you predict Nahri will be? Do you think she’ll be equal to Dara, or more powerful?
Nils: I think our Banu Nahida will have a wealth of power to reveal!
Beth: YAAAAAAAAS QUEEN
Nils: TOTAL QUEEN!
Other than healing, do we know what other powers her race could wield? Unless I’ve missed something I don’t think that has been revealed yet.
Beth: I don’t think so? I think there’s just Generic Magical Ability otherwise?
Nils: However, they must have had plenty of abilities otherwise why would Sueiliman make them his chosen? I don’t think we’ll find out in this book though, so I think we’ll have to wait until The Kingdom of Copper.
Beth: I keep telling myself that too – there are another two books in this trilogy, there must be some pretty big surprises in store!
Nils: As for whether she’ll be more powerful than Dara, well I guess that all depends on Nahri’s true parentage. Her Nahid race would suggest she’d be less powerful, as the Afshin were their protectors so they obviously needed protecting, but depending on who Nahri’s father is, she could actually turn out to be more powerful!
Beth: I think she’s going to be very powerful. I think once she understands herself, she’ll unlock something amazing. You raise an excellent point though Nils, we don’t know about her father. What if he was an Afshin?? PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWER
Nils: I hadn’t thought of that!! How amazing would that be?! I keep thinking she might have ifrit blood in her, which I think is an early theory you had Beth?
Beth: Oh I’d forgotten about that theory! Could you imagine if she had ifrit powers??
This week ends with Dara and Nahri having a heated argument. Whose side are you on? Should Nahri consider the continuation of her ancient Nahid bloodline or should she follow her heart?
Nils: I can sort of see both sides of the argument here. I mean I stand firmly on the side of it’s Nahri’s body and only she can decide whether she wants children or not, that can never be something someone else decides for her or pressures her into. A topic that’s quite relevant to today’s society too, don’t you think?
Beth: Absolutely. I love that Chakraborty has confronted this issue; there is so much expectation on women to have families, to want to have families. A woman who does not want children is considered abnormal. For Nahri’s, there’s also the added pressure of that demand that she’s the last of her race? So even if she wanted children to begin, it’s now tainted by the responsibility she’d be putting on them, before they’re even born.
Nils: Yes, exactly, so I understand Nahri’s anger. Like you said Beth, as far as we know she is the last of a once renowned powerful race, and so continuing that sacred bloodline is an option worthy of consideration. She cannot simply follow her heart without firstly thinking through exactly what she’ll be sacrificing.
Therefore I can see where Dara’s intentions are meant for Nahri’s benefit, he just goes about it in completely the wrong way! Suggesting she marry someone else was a classic way to immediately make Nahri feel like her body was something to be used merely for breeding!
Having said all of that, I’m not entirely convinced Dara can’t have children…
Beth: If Nahri got hold of his relic, she’d be able to do that thing where the Nahids bring people back, right? So she could bring him back to proper physical life, and then he’d be able to have children?
Nils: Ooh I’d forgotten about that! Good shout, Beth. That might be exactly what Nahri does.
Beth: I can see what Dara’s saying in terms of their relationship though; even if their circumstances were normal and Nahri wasn’t the last of her race etc, is it fair to stay with someone when you know you can’t give them everything they might want? But then, is that Dara’s decision to make?
Nils: Beth, I know we both loved this one:
“I’m coming back, Nahri,” he promised. You’re my Banu Nahida. This is my city.” His expression was defiant. “Nothing will keep me from either of you.”
Beth: Yes! I immediately whatsapped you! Might be my favourite quote of the whole book so far.
Nils: I also loved this quote on how the mythical legend and the actual legendary figure can be two separate entities:
“That’s the way of things, isn’t it?” Ali asked. “The Legend outweighing the flesh-and-blood figure?”
And this one made me laugh!
“By the Most High, Alizayd.” His father rolled his eyes. “I’m not asking you to lure her into your bed—as thoroughly entertaining a spectacle as that would be. I’m asking you to make a friend.”
Beth: There were quite a few moments that made me laugh this week:
“I’m being delivered to my enemy in a floral box,” Dara replied
And there was the quote you Whatsapped me:
“Are you suggesting my ancestral enemy has an ulterior motive? But I’ve spilled all my deepest secrets… what will I do?” Nahri touched her heart in mock horror and then narrowed her eyes. “Have you forgotten who I am, Dara? I can handle Ali just fine.”
Nils: Nahri’s attitude here really made me laugh!
Beth: But there were plenty of moments also that were so moving. This week we finally had a glimpse into Nahri’s feelings about her parents:
“I wonder if my mother ever braided my hair.
The tiny thought bubbled up, a crack in the armor Nahri had settled over that part of herself…
Nahri’s throat tightened. In many ways, it had been easier to assume her parents neglectful bastards who’d abandoned her.”
We hope you enjoyed this week’s discussion – there were some interesting reveals, and although we’re looking forward to see what happens next, we’ll be so sad to reach the end!