I have mixed feelings about The City of Brass. I largely enjoyed it: it was refreshing to read a fantasy with a setting other than feudal Europe and I particularly enjoyed the djinn and other fantastical creatures in this story. The writing is good and it was certainly compelling enough to keep me reading all day. Sadly, there are a few things in City of Brass that I didn’t really enjoy.
Firstly, I went in expecting this to be an adult fantasy novel, but I found it to be more of a YA fantasy, which is fine if that’s what you’d like to read, but I’m moving away from that genre so I was a tad disappointed. This mainly came across in the endless tropes: the chosen one, the love triangle, the ‘blood/race-purity’ arguments etc… Now don’t get me wrong, a lot of adult fantasy contains those tropes too, but in my experience they have been executed more subtly as part of a larger tale, whereas in The City of Brass I found these aspects to be shoved in my face quite jarringly. I found the love triangle particularly tiresome and clumsy. Especially the ending, that was very frustrating to be honest. I won’t go into details but it was almost like the author couldn’t decide the fates of her characters and did a U-turn right at the end. Again, this comes down to personal preference and I am much happier with Martin-esque ruthlessness with characters.
This leads me onto the characters. I’ve mentioned that I enjoyed the fact that all the main characters are djinn. This was new for me and I was very intrigued about their different powers. However, I had a few problems. Their looks (apart from the varying skin colours), mainly the ears and their powers, didn’t seem any different from the high fae/fae we find regularly in fantasy, again mainly in YA fantasy. It was disappointing to have a fantastical race that isn’t written about that much described as nearly exactly the same as the fae (apart from the skin colour).
On top of this, or maybe because of this?, I didn’t really connect to any of the characters. I found Ali quite annoying for the majority of the book, he was clearly supposed to be different from his family, more devout, stubborn in his views etc.. but I couldn’t really pin down how or why he was this way and what he expected others to do about it. He was quite two-dimensional and we are meant to believe that he was naturally a perfect fighter whilst also the scholar… it felt too forced, too stuck to the trope. Especially as the story progressed and he befriended Nahri, at which point if the trope hadn’t already been glaringly obvious it became so then.
I much preferred Nahri’s chapters but mainly for Dara. Nahri was interesting but she wasn’t very relatable or realistic as person. After everything she’d been through and discovered, nothing seemed to faze her. Anyone else would have questioned everything, had mood swings, been stressed… but no, she took everything in her stride and we had no real character development. She let everything happen to her – I don’t think her demands to the King towards the end change that as it was entirely a reaction to Dara’s actions, not her own. I also never really understood who/what she was. I think that was intentional, but it was executed poorly. The King of Daevabad and an Ifrit strongly suggest something about her, which is apparently confirmed by the King’s use of his anti-magic mark in front of witnesses, but then by the end we’re unsure again. I really feel like the ending let this book down, as many things we thought we knew were suddenly uncertain but for no reason other than to make you want to read the second one. I did like Dara though. He was complicated, had depth, and despite gaps in his own memory, we gained understanding of his motivations and behaviour. He was definitely the best character.
In terms of world building, this was done well but it isn’t very expansive. Cairo comes to life a little, but we get most of the descriptions of the human city while Nahri is in the fantastical city Daevabad so there was no immersion into the Egyptian culture/sights/sounds etc… I felt Daevabad was explored better, I could clearly picture the walls and districts and imagine roughly what it must have looked like but I couldn’t picture the layout of the buildings particularly well. I would have liked a bigger picture of the world Nahri inhabits or more about where the different djinn tribes come from. It was a very narrow view of the world which I am sure will be explored in the sequels, but isn’t really set up well in this first instalment.
Despite all that, I did find this an enjoyable read and I would recommend it to anyone who loves YA fantasy. I may read the sequel, the potential is there but I won’t rush out for it on release day.