S A Chakraborty burst onto the scene with The City of Brass, an immersive fantasy of secret birthrights, simmering passions and social upheaval. With Empire of Gold hitting the shelves next month, if you haven’t read the Daevabad books yet let me tell you why you should…
Not your typical fantasy setting
If you’ve longed to explore a fantasy setting without mediaeval European roots, you’re in for a treat – Daevabad is a lavishly imagined city of the djinn, its society and architecture reflecting its Middle Eastern heritage. The djinn aren’t one homogenous race: there are many tribes, each with their own homeland, magical arts and cultural traditions. Daevabad is a multicultural metropolis – full of prejudices, power imbalances and rising social tensions – as dangerous as it is beautiful. Its wily King maintains control by ruthlessly playing the tribes and political factions off against each other. It’s dry kindling just waiting for a spark to set it alight…
Who’s that girl?
Our heroine is a con woman from Cairo with a good heart but few scruples. Nahri doesn’t believe djinn exist until she accidentally summons one, but it turns out to be a godsend when she is hunted through the streets by ghouls. Her turbulent night opens the door to another world: she may be the last scion of the noblest djinni line – or she may be a shafit by-blow, part-human, part-djinn. Either way, she’s about to upset Daevabad’s delicate balance of power. Irreverent and ignorant of the ways of the djinn, the strong-minded young woman must learn to navigate a world divided between exalting and executing her…
What if your brooding YA hero really were the worst? (note: I don’t peg the Daevabad books as YA; but as a female-authored fantasy with a romance element you can guess what shelf you’ll likely find it on and Dara does fit this trope)
Dara – who rescues (or kidnaps) Nahri from Cairo – is beautiful even for a djinn, with a haunting past and two emotional notes: brooding and rage. A peerless archer and powerful magician, he’s dedicated to returning his Daeva tribe – and their Nahid leaders – to power. He’s also controlling, classist, racist, and an apologist. So tell me again how he’s a hot love interest? Ha, I say. HA.
Don’t get me wrong – he’s still a brilliant character. He has done everything they say he’s done (but there’s two sides to every story). He wants to do the right thing (if only he knew what that looks like). He’s the best defence a girl can get… and the djinn most likely to get her into hot water in the first place. I do at times feel sorry for him even if I don’t like him (although honestly? I don’t feel very sorry for him. I just love yelling DARA NO at the page and waiting to see what terrible decision he makes next).
Spiced cinnamon roll prince
Instead, I’m shamelessly #TeamAlizayd – not as a love interest (romance, schlomance), but as a person. The youngest son of the king of Daevabad, Ali is hopelessly naive but he means well. The result is charmingly straightforward: heart on his sleeve, a fervent idealist, driven to improve the lot of the shafit. He’s the worst possible person to put in the middle of a political storm – he has no talent for dissembling and he’s both touchy and prejudiced (don’t ask him about Daeva) so it’s really easy to set him off and cause a stir. But I can’t resist a socially awkward bookworm even one who can cut you to ribbons – as he’s expected to be the future king’s bodyguard, he absolutely can and will kick your ass. Or Dara’s…
Your mileage may vary, but I take a deep and abiding glee in any plot which sets someone to hunt themselves down. Especially when they’re as bad at lying as Ali – and when the stakes are so very, very high. Poor Ali.
While I’m not big on romance tropes, I do have a spot spot for the enemies-to-lovers/friends variant of ’they hate each other, but one must teach the other to read’. Nahri is clever and quick-witted, but illiterate; Ali is a well-educated bookworm and OH NO they have to hang out in the palace library YES GIVE ME THAT MEETING OF MINDS.
…which only gets better in The Kingdom of Copper (okay, I acknowledge this is so subjective it may just be me) when THEY REFURBISH A BUILDING TOGETHER (the romance trope I never knew I needed, but YAS it is perfect).
Sorry, I’ve strayed into all caps. Look, it was always going to happen. I love these books.
I am typically
as more interested in the non-romantic relationships on the page, and in Daevabad that’s the al Qahtani ruling family. King Ghassan is my shade of grey (morally speaking) and it’s not hard to see why his kids tiptoe around him and his redoubtable, possibly traitorous wife keeps her distance (…when we finally meet Hatset she is EVERYTHING). I love the complexity of Ghassan’s love for his children – and, well, let’s save that next thought for now.
First, the royal siblings. Muntadhir is a glittering bi playboy prince with no spine (I’d love to say he’s a consummate politician skilled in the arts of compromise, but I don’t really believe that) and Zaynab is an immaculate poison snake with a warm heart (probably). They cannot agree on anything, but they are deeply committed to one another and I am here for it. I will never get over the siblings having a family row in a broom cupboard as the city comes apart around them.
Look I said I wanted to talk about Ghassan and I meant it. He is the dirtiest sort of politician. He has a reason for everything he does, and that reason is staying in power. Everybody is a pawn to be sacrificed; every decision is weighed in terms of whether it will lead to the most or least civil unrest in the long term – and in terms of whose support he most needs. So he will allow tensions to rise to keep the daeva in check; he will allow the shafit to be persecuted to stop their superior numbers telling; and he will send in the troops to suppress riots without mercy (after letting the rioters do a certain amount of damage).
And – horribly – you could argue that it works.
Cold-blooded doesn’t come close. I am too idealistic for this sort of ruthlessness – but I appreciate how it makes him a complex character and a nuanced villain, not one note Evil King. So I love Ghassan every bit as much as he horrifies me: he’s my kind of villain. The one you come dangerously close to understanding, if not sympathising with.
Then there’s the question of what he really felt for Manizheh, the last Nahid; and whether he really thinks Nahri is her daughter. Not that the answer may reassure – he adores his children, and look what he’s willing to do to them…
The Daevabad trilogy is a well-imagined, magical, beautifully-written fantasy of politics and action – but it tackles big questions of prejudice (gender, religion, race, sexual orientation) and it never lets its own world-building off the hook. There are no easy answers in Daevabad, and every compromise comes at a price someone will not like paying. This story is all about power imbalances and the lengths to which people are prepared to go to preserve – or topple – the status quo. It tackles questions of extremism and terror attacks, and pivots to look at them through the lens of forgiveness. This is another reason why it works for me: the sociopolitical world-building is meticulous (if not necessarily subtle) and it’s here to stare in the mirror at our own world.
So that thing about no easy answers? Don’t get attached to anyone, is what I’m saying. Even if they live, they will be compromised in ways you never imagined, and your heart will be WRUNG OUT. And if they’re not dead? That may be even WORSE.
The Empire of Gold is released on June 11 in the UK (sorry USians, you have to wait until June 30) – but I’ve managed to get my hands on an eARC so if you hear tortured screaming in the wind in a couple of weeks time, you know I’ve started reading it…