Review: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

Review: The City of Brass by S.A. ChakrabortyThe City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy, #1) by S.A. Chakraborty
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Daevabad Trilogy #1
Pages: 528
Published by Harper Voyager on November 14th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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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 . . .

My Review:

I picked up The City of Brass because this was the book that its publishers were the most extremely enthused about in my research for the Library Journal SF/Fantasy Spotlight article. Now that I’ve read it, I understand completely. However, as I read The City of Brass, it also kept reminding me of other stories. It just took me awhile to figure out exactly which stories.

There’s certainly an element of The Goblin Emperor in one side of this story, as Prince Ali feels very much like a young prince who stands very much outside the system and whom the power-that-be expect to consume alive at their earliest opportunity. And Nahri is certainly every bit as much a “fish out of water” (as bizarre as that pun becomes in context) as Maia ever was. Possibly even more, as Maia at least knows the court exists, even if he never expects to rule it. For Nahri, Daevabad is a city of out the vague mists of legend, and legends that she doesn’t even believe in.

But Daevabad feels like something out of a twisted, extended version of Scheherazade’s tales of the Thousand and One Arabian Nights. With just a little bit of Persian, Indian and other mythologies thrown in for spice. And bodies. But the story that our heroine Nahri finds herself in the middle of has been going on, not for 1,001 nights, but for for millennia.

The story begins with scam artist Nahri sizing up her next mark. And it ends with Nahri sizing up her next mark. But in between – it’s magic.

At the beginning, Nahri is a con artist, scaping together a living on the streets of 18th century Cairo, trying to blend in. But Nahri has just a little bit of magic, something that she conceals at every turn, because its a gift that will either get her eaten alive, or killed, or possibly both.

Nahri can heal. I don’t mean that she’s a doctor, although she sometimes operates on the fringes of what passed for medicine in her time and place. I mean that she herself heals miraculously. Any wounds that she receives heal themselves in almost the blink of an eye.

But she can also heal others. It takes will and concentration, but she can cure almost anything by visualizing the body the way it should be. It’s a gift. And also a curse, because Nahri does not know how or why she has this gift.

She doesn’t believe in magic, but a lot of people do. So Nahri dabbles, just a bit, in scams that look like magic to others. And that’s what gets her in big, big trouble.

Because instead of “calming the spirit” of an afflicted child, Nahri accidentally calls up an evil spirit, an ifrit, who wants to eat her and her magic before it proceeds to rampage through the streets of Cairo. And in the wake of the ifrit follows a djinn who vowed to serve and protect Nahri’s family over a millennia ago.

But djinn are not exactly what Nahri thinks they are. And neither are ifrit. And most especially, neither is she.

The City of Brass is the opening chapter in Nahri’s journey to discover who and what she is, and where she belongs. And it is absolutely captivating from beginning to cliffhanging end.

Escape Rating A+: At the beginning, I said that The City of Brass reminded me of 2014’s marvelous The Goblin Emperor. While the fantasy settings derive from rather different origins, the flavor at the heart of the story feels the same. They are both stories of outsiders who find themselves thrust into a cut-throat world of high stakes politics, where everyone around them has hidden agendas buried under hidden agendas. And where everyone who surrounds them intends to keep them in the pawn position, subservient to others, lost and alone, and barely one step ahead of being killed by their own ignorance or innocence.

Both stories feature people who are playing a game that they do not initially understand with stakes that are always deadly, not just for themselves, but for anyone around them who gets caught in the crossfire.

And ironically, they are both personages who should have the ultimate power in their universes, but don’t because of circumstances outside of their control. And both of them find themselves subverting the system from within just to survive long enough to figure out their next move.

If they have one.

The story that begins with The City of Brass is both a story of hidden magical kingdoms and the story of two young people who discover that power is much “realer” than belief, and that for those in power, the ends always justify the means.

While the story follows Nahri and her transit from the human world to the kingdoms of the djinn, it is at its heart a very political story. Nahri’s existence has the ability to upset the balance of power between the ruling djinn family and the mixed blood people they exploit at every turn. Every faction plans to take advantage of her presence, whether with her consent or not.

We watch her struggle to make, find and understand her place throughout the story. And then, marvelously, just as this chapter comes to a close, we finally see her grasp the reins of her own destiny, as only she knows how.

I can’t wait to see what happens next in The Kingdom of Copper next year. Nahri is a heroine to watch – and cheer for.

Review: The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan + Giveaway

Review: The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan + GiveawayThe Bloodprint (The Khorasan Archives #1) by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy
Series: Khorasan Archives #1
Pages: 448
Published by Harper Voyager on October 3rd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A dark power called the Talisman has risen in the land, born of ignorance and persecution. Led by a man known only known as the One-eyed Preacher, it is a cruel and terrifying movement bent on world domination—a superstitious patriarchy that suppresses knowledge and subjugates women. And it is growing.

But there are those who fight the Talisman's spread, including the Companions of Hira, a diverse group of influential women whose power derives from the Claim—the magic inherent in the words of a sacred scripture. Foremost among them is Arian and her apprentice, Sinnia, skilled warriors who are knowledgeable in the Claim. This daring pair have long stalked Talisman slave-chains, searching for clues and weapons to help them battle their enemy’s oppressive ways. Now, they may have discovered a miraculous symbol of hope that can destroy the One-eyed Preacher and his fervid followers: The Bloodprint, a dangerous text the Talisman has tried to erase from the world.

Finding a copy of The Bloodprint promises to be their most dangerous undertaking yet, an arduous journey that will lead them deep into Talisman territory. Though they will be helped by allies—a loyal ex-slave and Arian’s former confidante and sword master—both Arian and Sinnia know that this mission may well be their last.

My Review:

If the Taliban and The Handmaid’s Tale had a hate child, it would be The Bloodprint. Yes, I mixed my metaphors, but it feels correct. And if after reading The Bloodprint there is anyone who does not mentally link the Talisman of the book with the Taliban of real life, I’ll eat my virtual hat.

The Bloodprint is an epic fantasy that feels very definitely part of the grimdark movement. It’s a very grim story, and the world that it portrays is in that terrible place where things are always darkest just before they turn completely black.

And although our protagonists are pursuing that one last ray of hope and light before all is extinguished, by the end it just feels as if all is lost.

The interesting thing about The Bloodprint is that it is, for the most part, a heroine’s story. The characters with agency are all female, and the defenders of the light are a female order of wise women and warriors. The story passes the Bechdel-Wallace test within the first page.

And that seems fitting, because so many of the victims of the darkness that has taken over this world are also female. Women without husbands or children are automatically sold into slavery. And the slave trade is so lucrative (or something even more nefarious) that the men of entire villages are wiped out just so that their surviving wives and daughters can be sold into slavery.

That’s not all that’s wrong. The Talisman, the villainous empire of our story, are systematically wiping out all books, all writing, and anyone who has the ability to write. Our heroes refer to the time that they live in as the “Age of Ignorance” because of this systematic erasure. And the parallels to the real-world Taliban, both in their treatment of the historical record and their treatment of women, feels screamingly obvious.

One of the foundations of the side of the light are its scriptoriums. And its relentless need to pass on any and all knowledge by oral as well as written tradition. Because there’s a reason for all of this erasure of history.

Writing, or at least a particular piece of writing called the “Claim”, is magic. And those who can wield the magic of the claim are extremely powerful. And rare.

Arian is our heroine, and one of the women who can wield the magic of the Claim for both offense and defense. She is a leading member of a legendary sisterhood, and she is tasked with the duty of retrieving a mythical original manuscript of the Claim, in order to bring about the end of the Talisman.

No such quest is ever conducted alone. Arian has companions on her journey, a guardian from her sisterhood, the man who loves her but whom she of course cannot have, and a child she rescues who will probably turn out to be the key to the whole thing at some future point. (I do not know this at all, I merely speculate.)

But equally, no such quest is ever undertaken without grave risk. Arian’s problems begin within the walls of her own sanctuary, as the leader of her order seems to be pursuing a separate, and possibly inimical, political end of her own.

Arian is uncertain whether or not she has been betrayed before she even begins. But as her journey continues through the devastated lands, she discovers that there are more forces arrayed against her than even she imagined in her darkest hours.

And that things are indeed always darkest just before they turn completely black.

Escape Rating B-: I have some mixed feelings about this book. There are some parts of the story that I really liked, and some that left me completely puzzled.

I love the idea of this in a whole bunch of ways. I really liked that the story begins as a buddy-story, with both of those buddies being women. And that our initial antagonist is a woman as well. There is absolutely no reason that any story can’t have women taking on a whole bunch of the roles that men regularly do. Hero, savior, villain, companion.

I also found it interesting that the male character in the story, while he is powerful in his own right, also takes on some of the roles that usually fall to women. This is Arian’s story and Arian’s quest and Daniyar is the one following her while she leads both the party and the story.

I was also fascinated by the way that this story is rooted in an entirely different mythical background than the Norse and/or Celtic mythologies that so often dominate epic fantasy.

But it was difficult to get into the story. At the beginning, it felt like a lot had already happened, and that somehow I’d missed. It. In the end, the impression I’m left with is that The Bloodprint felt like the middle book of a trilogy, even though it isn’t. When the story begins, we’re in the middle of action that has been going on for years. The situation is already desperate. And there’s positively oodles of backstory between not just Arian and her companion Sinnia, but between Arian and Daniyar, and especially between Arian and Ilea, the leader of her order. Backstory and context which readers scramble to assemble from the clues left by the characters’ thoughts and actions.

And the world has already gone completely to hell in that handbasket and it doesn’t look salvageable. Arian’s quest has the feel of a “Hail, Mary” pass, one of those million-to-one shots that only succeed in epic fantasy and the Discworld.

But it also feels like a middle book because the narrative trajectory heads downward. Things start out bad, get steadily worse, and we end on a horrible cliffhanger with the fingers being stomped on. Things began grim and ended grimmer.

On my other hand, the final 25% is absolutely compelling page-turning reading. I could see the end coming, I knew it was probably going to be horrifying, and I could not stop myself from racing to get there as fast as I could.

In the end, The Bloodprint is compelling but very, very dark epic fantasy. I’m very curious to see how our heroines get out of the very hot frying pan they’ve landed in, and how much hotter the fire underneath will turn out to be.

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