“Greatness takes time, Banu Nahida. Often the mightiest things have the humblest beginnings.”
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 . . .
CW: gore (including eye gore), body horror, violence, slavery, human trafficking, graphic injury, loss of a loved one, self-harm, rape
There’s nothing wrong with hyped books. Really, the disappointment only comes with comparing the hype to the experience, and finding that experience lacking. Unfortunately, that’s the track The City of Brass has taken for me. For all the hype surrounding it, it was at best an average read in my books.
Alternating between the POVs of Nahri the thief and Ali the prince, The City of Brass follows Nahri’s introduction to the world of the Daeva/djinn and Ali’s navigation of rebellion and a quest for rights for the shafit, people of djinn and human descent whose rights are restricted in the city of Daevabad. Typically, I gravitate towards thief characters, but Nahri never really clicked for me. I suspect it was because she spends so much of the novel following someone else’s orders (even if it irritates her), and because other characters continually withhold information from her, which in turn frustrated the hell out of me. Occasionally, she takes some proactive steps, but not often enough for me to warm up to her.
Meanwhile, I liked Ali much more. Second son of the king of Daevabad, Ali is a trained warrior who seems more at home as a scholar despite his considerable skill with a blade. He has an innate curiosity and a head for economics, but none of the social charm that his older brother possesses. He’s also a devout Muslim, one of the few characters in the text who seems to fully embrace the faith. Ownvoices reviewers like May and Chaima, though, have observed that Ali is constantly ridiculed for his religious practices and beliefs, which undermines the representation to some degree tokenizing and mocking the lone devout Muslim in the same breath. I recommend you read their reviews regarding Ali, since I’m not an ownvoices reviewer in this case.
Besides Nahri and Ali, the only other central character is Dara, who had me wanting to tear my hair out. He constantly withholds information from Nahri and tries to engineer her life around her, leaving her little agency, and though some of that can be explained by his memory loss (which, in itself, is something of a mystery, as is the fact that he’s not vanished from existence, something the second book will probably tackle), enough of it is willful miscommunication. Too much of it, really. And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it meant I couldn’t stand the romance. Dara was a smug, condescending jerk, and I’m just not interested in an oncoming love triangle with him at one of the corners. Hard pass, thanks.
So overall, the characters didn’t exactly wow me, and the plot didn’t either, at least not until the end of the book. It takes a terribly long time for Nahri to even get to Daevabad, for the political machinations to even begin, forcing Ali, Nahri, and Dara into tight corners, and it was a close call, deciding not to DNF the book. I shouldn’t be 3/4 the way through the book with only a couple plot threads that interest me, and nothing else to go on but the hope that something’s going to come up that I’ll latch onto. In this case, something did, and I’ll probably even read The Kingdom of Copper, but the fact that it took until the end of the book for any that felt truly significant to come to a head means the pacing and plot were something of a tragedy to get through.
For all my complaints, though, this was still a three star read on account of what I think it might become. The ending roared along, the last fourth or so of the book, and introduced some questions about Dara’s fate, Nahri’s next moves, and Ali’s future all at once. There are complications regarding family and the shafit rebellion, revelations and further questions about the enslavement of djinn by the ifrit (especially regarding Dara’s enslavement), and it all leaves Nahri poised to become the cleverest person in the Daevabad court, if only she can play her cards absolutely right. I am hoping beyond hope that The Kingdom of Copper takes the threads of The City of Brass that I actually found myself intrigued by (the Nahid bloodline has my full attention, particularly after that epilogue), and spins them into something with sharper pacing and more riveting stakes.
This series has potential, there’s no doubt about it. What holds the first book back is weak pacing and characters that need more spark to them, more oomph that makes me want to root for their success (or, at the very least, their survival). I’ll be back for the sequel whenever I can get my hands on it, and I do have a deep interest in unraveling the mysteries that have reared their heads by the book’s end. I just can’t recommend this book to anyone who’s going to be bored by a slower pace and political maneuvering, because it will frustrate you to no end. If you’ve got the patience to plow through slower content in order to reach greater moments of intrigue, though, this might just be for you. In the end, I think The City of Brass is a book that does rely heavily on personal taste in pace and plot content.