S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and The Kingdom of Copper are the first two books of her Daevabad Trilogy… which, yes, means that I started an unfinished series despite my general resolve to quit doing that. Oops.
Chakraborty is writing Islamic fantasy here; the book starts off with a poor woman living as more or less a con artist on the streets of Cairo during the Napoleonic era; but pretty quickly it takes a turn to the fantastic, and leaves mundane geography behind altogether as it moves to the titular locations.
The story explores weighty themes, looking at an unjust society and how revolution and accommodation and war can change that for good and ill. Despite that, it all moves along quickly and compellingly, with complex characters, political intrigue, ancient magics, and tense action scenes; this is one of those books where I found myself reading it in every spare second, on elevator rides, while walking down long hallways, etc.
Which, if I have a criticism, it’s that it’s maybe a bit too easy to read.
Like, many of the characters are supernatural beings who are hundreds of years old and have lived their life in Asia or the Middle East in the 17th-19th centuries, right; even the human characters are from 19th century Cairo. Despite which, their mindset—the things they think about, the things they value, the things that bother them—too frequently seems casually modern and American.
This ends up making the setting feel like an Islamic gloss over the standard fantasyland—like, just change a few nouns around, and it could be set in generic Disney-medieval Europe. Compare that to something like Nicola Griffith’s Hild or Zen Cho’s The True Queen, where the characters genuinely feel of their time and place, and have concerns and mindsets that aren’t automatically familiar to modern American readers, and you really notice the difference.
But that’s not a huge criticism, because really most fantasy books end up feeling ahistorical in that way, and anyway, Chakraborty’s explicitly stated goal was to make a series that combined Islamic characters and settings with the feeling of “a summer blockbuster,” and she definitely achieved that. If you like epic fantasy full of high magic and political intrigue, these are strongly recommended. I’ll be reading the third book just as soon as it’s released.