Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh
sheenaghpugh

Blog review of City of Brass, by S A Chakkraborty, pub. HarperCollins 2017

I'm a bit of a sucker for anything set in Cairo, also for djinns and afrits and similar beings. So this should be my sort of novel, and in some ways it was. I don't mind magic realism, nor the mixing of human and mythological characters, and the central character Nahri, a young Cairene street con artist from the time of Napoleon, comes over as very believable and sympathetic (also, despite her magic powers, very human).

When the scene shifts from Cairo to Daevabad, populated by various tribes of djinn plus djinn-human hybrids called shafit, those who are averse to fantasy will begin to worry, particularly since in truth, the concept of a race of magical beings looking down on and ill-treating non-magical ones, and especially despising mixed-bloods, is a bit too Harry Potter for comfort. Also, like many novels with a fantasy element, this one has rather too much back-story for the structure to cope with, and certainly too many weird species to recall easily..

Do not despair, however, for it soon becomes apparent that what we have here is less a fantasy than an allegory, and the species it really relates to is humanity. The novel's main theme is schism and its effects, religious, racial and personal. What is wrong in Daevabad (just about everything) can be traced back, first to Suleiman's arbitrary division of the djinn into tribes, then to religious differences that arose between one tribe and the others. The result of these two events has been several centuries of genocide on both sides. People's response to accusations of the various atrocities they and their ancestors have committed is always the familiar one of whataboutery - "what about such and such that your ancestors did?", as if one atrocity justified another. Since djinn live for many centuries, one at least of our characters is among the original war criminals, and one of the novel's more interesting facets is how a person might still be in love with such a character even when she knows what he has done.

It isn't difficult to transfer the djinn wars into human terms - the great schism of Islam, between Shia and Sunni, would probably come first to mind, but there are other parallels; the Daeva tribe, for example, have some resemblance to Zoroastrians but their situation in Daevabad more closely resembles that of Jews in many times and places. Perhaps the key thing to bear in mind is that nobody's hands are clean; whoever is currently in power is doing the oppressing and there is every sign that if the wheel turned, today's victims would cheerfully become tomorrow's tyrants, having learned nothing from experience (much as the Pilgrim Fathers, once safely arrived in America, could hardly wait to start persecuting Quakers).

The attraction of Nahri as a character (for me at least) rests partly in the fact that she is so much her own person, so resistant to defining herself by race, religion or anything else. She is brave, chippy, seldom at a loss for an answer, even when speaking to a king:
"You look terrible; there appears to be a journey's worth of blood on your clothes alone."
"I'm fine," she insisted. "It's not all mine."
The last sentence of the book proper would suggest that she is still essentially an individualist, a pragmatist. But there have been odd disturbing hints that she might have begun to identify at least partly with one side, and the epilogue makes it clear that the sectarian faction-fighting is set to continue.

I like the novel for being about big issues - goodness knows that's better than some Aga-saga about Roland and Petronella's marriage breaking up, as if anyone cared. And the actual writing is always fluent and readable. But there are flaws. A few too many loose ends that I don't think were intentional, and at least one unforgivable get-out, when a vital ring turns up in the hands of a woman who had no obvious means of getting hold of it:
Kaveh immediately closed his hands over the ring. "By the Creator," he breathed. "How did you-?"
She shook her head. "Don't ask."
That won't do, and the overload of back-story, invented history and above all, tribal and language names doesn't help either. But it is a page-turner, nonetheless. I'm not absolutely certain whether I shall re-read it, but am not sorry I read it the once.
Tags: book reviews, novels
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