Book cover: The City of Brass - S A Chakraborty (minarets silhouetted against a carved door)Nahri is a hustler with a sixth sense for sickness, trying to save up enough money from her scams to study medicine. When she accidentally summons a daeva during an improvised ritual, her dreams go up in smoke. Now she must flee her home to survive the ifrit who hunt her bloodline down. Will she find sanctuary in the City of Brass?

This is a gorgeous, sweeping fantasy, steeped in mythology and rich in flavour. I came for the concept (djinni fantasy? Yes please!) and stayed for the characters as they tangled on the page. It’s a portal fantasy (Nahri steps from the fascinating but mundane world of 18th century Cairo into the parallel realm of the djinni) that leans heavily on familiar YA/urban fantasy tropes (hidden powers? Secret birthright? Love triangle? You betcha), but its novel setting makes it feel completely fresh.

Our protagonists are Nahri – streetwise, self-interested and smart; and young Prince Alizayd – consummate swordsman, devout believer, and hopelessly naïve. Between them stands Dara, a powerful daeva who once slaughtered an entire city, enslaved by ifrit for a thousand years and covered in scars memorialising the masters he has betrayed. Still, kinda sexy (and people ask me why I roll my eyes at romantic triangles).

The parallel stories follow Nahri as she summons a very grumpy Dara in Cairo, where he promptly rescues her from an ifrit and its horde of ghuls. Or kidnaps her, depending on your point of view. Dara may be the greatest warrior the daeva have ever known; he’s certainly one of the most arrogant. I had the feeling I was meant to go all weak-kneed over him, but he’s such an arse I found myself scowling at him most of the time (PICK THE SOCIALLY AWKWARD BUT SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS SCHOLAR PRINCE, NAHRI! Ahem).

Nahri handles Dara with aplomb: denying her attraction, using his offensive comments to keep him at arm’s length, regularly trying to escape him to find her own way. I loved Nahri for her independence and determination; she’s used to relying on herself, so she never succumbs to being a damsel in distress. Even when on the run for her life as the world shifts around her, she’s looking for a way out and a way up (although honestly, trying to steal a ring from the finger of a sleeping djinn has to be one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard).

We’re introduced to the City of Brass through Prince Ali, who has been secretly channelling funding to an underground group intent on improving the lives of the shafit (djinni of human descent). His father the king is determined to stamp out those he considers violent dissidents; Ali soon finds himself set to hunt himself down; always a favourite plot of mine.

And this is where City of Brass excels: it takes familiar plots and tropes and weaves them into its setting seamlessly. It channels questions of prejudice (gender, religion, race, sexual orientation) and presents them through the lens of djinni society, effortlessly adding layers and complexities to an already-fascinating world. It takes nothing as read: there are multiple perspectives on every issue, even before Nahri blows through town with her irreverence and open-mindedness. Add in a deadly cinnamon roll Prince who must teach our wayward heroine to read (possibly the only romance trope I can’t resist), and a stew of politics with so many ingredients that I could only keep turning the pages to find out what was going on, and I was helplessly in love.

This is one of those books where you start off having fun and then realise you don’t want to put it down before progressing to actually squealing at the page at the climax (no spoilers but AAAAAAAAH). It’s also the first in a trilogy, so don’t expect any answers or closure – just the irresistible need for the sequel soon, please.

****1/2

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

City of Brass is available now in the US and the UK. The sequel, Kingdom of Copper is expected (but not promised!) towards the end of this year.