City of Brass by S A Chakraborty

As a whole, I liked City of Brass.

It suffers from a case of having a weak first half – never a good thing but especially dangerous for debut authors. It starts off awfully slowly and despite having two points of view, very little is accomplished. The main character, Nahri’s POV alternates between mountains of exposition regarding the djinn world, clans, culture and her attempting to be cool whenever Dara breathes nearby. Ali’s chapters consist of him being reminded repeatedly that the systemic djinn caste culture is pretty terrible and that he will be the king’s advisor when his older brother receives the crown. Nothing else really happens for the first 250 pages. A lack of story doesn’t inherently bother me, but if it’s the case there needs to be something else to hook the reader like moreish prose or introspective character studies (neither of which were bad at all here but not so great as to specifically note).

I recommend powering through it as once Nahri and Dara arrive at the city of brass, it gets far more interesting. In particular, Dara clashing with and antagonising literally everyone was immensely enjoyable to read. I was a huge fan with Chakraborty’s careful creation of an incredibly morally grey world. It’s obvious that the djinn in charge are not exactly kind rulers to the lower castes but those that oppose them are pretty shitty people as well. This is reflected well in the characters also – Dara is critical of much of the city (and rightfully so, mostly) but he’s hardly a paragon what with his historical reputation. Ali, too, is pretty reasonable in that he wants to help the poor but then he turns around and shows how religiously zealous he is and how he looks down on basically everyone around him. It’s the same for every major character and faction and never feels like whiplash personality changes; every chapter I was switching my opinion on who to support, it was expertly done.

I kind of felt that the female characters were a bit lacking, unfortunately. Nahri is an excellent character who goes through significant development throughout the book and I’m interested to see where her story goes in the future. But the supporting cast is somewhat lacklustre. Zaynab has one scene where she shows her cards immediately and Nahri’s like ‘okay not gonna hang out with her again’ and then she’s barely seen. Nisreen is more consisntenly prominent but she doesn’t really do much except be disapproving up until the climax. I expect she’ll have a bigger part in the sequels, and I hope Zaynab does too; she was a great character that deserves more focus (especially after her one particular conversation with Ali).

Probably every review has mentioned this at some point, so I won’t linger, but I really appreciated the Arab-esque setting, particularly because it was clearly so well researched. Djinn are to Islamic folklore what Baba Yaga is to Slavic folklore – that is to say, when anyone dares write about something so ‘exotic’, they probably are only interested about including djinn. So, it was refreshing to see references to marids, peri, daeva and nahids.

I think this review reflects more negatively than how I feel. I didn’t love it as I had hoped but I did enjoy it as a whole. I like that it doesn’t try to hide its Arab inspirations, written by an author who clearly isn’t writing in the setting because its ‘ethnic’ but actually because they’re interested in and knowledgeable about it. I like the constant struggle Ali has between wanting to support his family and help the needy. I like how Nahri is put in a shit position but negotiates her way to the ‘optimal’ solution even if it’s not the happiest for her. While I don’t feel an urge to rush out to buy Kingdom of Copper, I’ve heard that it is better by those who loved City of Brass so I will certainly be reading it in the future.

The Prince of Cats by Daniel E Olesen

The Prince of Cats is a captivating new fantasy novel by Daniel E Olesen. Set in a fictional Middle Eastern city, the book almost instantly reminded me of the first Assassin’s Creed game (but with a thief). The main character, Jawad, running across rooftops, slinking around alleys displays the city of Alcázar in a way that is so reminiscent of the game that it got me all nostalgic.

People have compared this book to The Lies of Locke Lamora; while I can see why, the similarities mostly end at the protagonist being a thief – Jawad is very much a lone wolf (in contrast to Locke’s thief buddies), there isn’t a secret thieving underworld and the tone of the book is very different. The Lies of Locke Lamora is very tongue in cheek, filled with witticisms, and while The Prince of Cats isn’t gritty/hyper-realistic by any means, it takes itself more seriously and isn’t afraid to get serious at points (discussed below).

As mentioned, Jawad is first and foremost a thief. Every time he meets someone, his first impression is the monetary value of their possessions. It’s great to see him always try to estimate potential profits and is a perfectly simple way to show his priorities.

‘A necklace of gold hung around his neck with a few gemstones as ornaments, giving it a value of around two hundred and twenty pieces of silver.’

‘While he spoke, he noticed the earring in Hashim’s undamaged ear, worth about five silver pieces, and the dagger in his belt, worth only trouble.’

Unfortunately in fantasy there’s often a trend of male authors writing male main characters who, when introducing a woman, will immediately first describe her looks and establish just how attractive or unattractive she is. Olesen bucks this trend with Jawad by continuing to focus on his jewellery obsession.

‘Contrary to what he would have expected, she did not pair her expensive clothes with any jewellery other than pearl earrings,’

This isn’t an isolated incident either as Olesen continues to subvert gender tropes throughout the book. Later on Jawad rushes off to save the ‘maiden’ from trouble only to find out that she’s fine and is instead organising a rescue operation to help the actual victims. It’s refreshing to see the female characters treated like normal people (wow what a depressing sentence) and with The Prince of Cat’s wide cast of women (honourable mentions go to the the creepy torturer and irritable fence), Olesen creates a gender balance that feels completely natural and appropriate.

Though the plot focuses solely on Jawad’s trials and tribulations, there are plenty of interesting side characters who get to shine despite their limited ‘screen time’. Ishak is one who I particularly enjoyed – he’s a nice comic relief character that provides light-hearted interludes to balance the occasional quite serious moments that the book goes through. Not only does he have some great one-liners but he also has a nice wee friendship with Jawad. Considering Jawad’s tendency to work alone and when with others, to deflect emotion with humour, his visits to Ishak adroitly showed the little chinks of vulnerability in his demeanour.

It can sometimes be a little iffy when western authors write a book set in the Middle East. Often it just actually is a Eurocentric culture and style with a desert painted over. Or it goes way in the other direction and becomes a weird fetishisation of Arab culture with little historical basis. Oleson, a known history nerd, avoids these common pitfalls entirely. He clearly did his homework since often Arabic terms are used and always accurately. One of the characters mentions her family used to live in the desert and appropriately their family name is al-Badawi  (translates to desert dweller). This example is somewhat pointed out to the reader but even the casual correct usage of words like ‘sidi’, ‘sayidaty’, ‘mamluk’ etc. are easy little ways to make the world more realistic. There are a few words that I think the author made up (‘haramlik’ and ‘salamlik’ in particular) but their etymology is clear enough to match up with the intended use (forbidden and permitted areas of the estate, respectively) such that they are still completely believable.

It’s worth mentioning that even though the book is set in a greater fantasy world, due to the cultural accuracy and lack of magic and fantastical elements, it could easily be considered a standalone historical fiction book.

One aspect of The Prince of Cats that I was particularly interested in was the character of Faisal al-Musharaf. More than once he is shown to have noticed a stealthing Jawad, and each time Jawad is taken aback. Jawad mentions how the upper class never see him when he chooses to move around covertly and this is proved multiple times so it’s curious to see how perceptive Faisal is. Not only that but the characters is also described as carrying a sword with a confidence that suggests he has a history with it. We never see this confidence in action which only boosts my curiosity. Outside of his mysterious backstory he is shown to be simply a nice person. He’s always courteous when talking to Jawad; compared to other members of the wealthy houses, he genuinely respects Jawad’s talents.

The only real criticism I have with the book is that the main character’s backstory is a handled a little clumsily. We are treated to a single memory of Jawad’s childhood with his brothers. This scene obviously haunts Jawad as we see it more than once but it becomes a bit too obvious that it’s vital exposition considering that it’s the only scene of Jawad’s past that is mentioned. In my opinion the story would have profited from having no explicit flashback. There was some clever exposition placed in the narrative each time Jawad visited his old teacher and this scene with his brothers could have been slipped into one of those meetings rather than being front and centre in the narrative.

The Prince of Cats is a fast paced book but there’s this one top-notch section that hits the brakes hard. What with Jawad’s lighthearted outlook disappearing combined with a drastic change in tone, this section makes for an excellently sudden brick wall for the reader and the Jawad to hit. The book could have been a little longer considering the pace and short-ish length but, all things considered, it’s a hugely enjoyable story with a compelling protagonist in a wonderfully real world.. While it comfortably works as a standalone, there are a few threads left open and I’m looking forward to see where they go.

The Steel Seraglio by Mike Carey, Linda Carey and Louise Carey

It’s rare when, after finishing a book, you have zero qualms with it – even little nit-picks. But that’s exactly how I felt after finishing The Steel Seraglio by Mike Carey, Linda Carey and Louise Carey. This is going to be a short review and really more of a rave; there’s not much else needed to say except that it’s just very nice.

The book takes clear inspiration from A Thousand and One Nights – from the prose to the chapter names. Each chapter is named in the format of a short fairy tale (‘The Tale of the Girl, Her Father, Her Two Suitors and the King of Assassins’, ‘The Youth Staked Out in the Desert’ etc) and usually is quite short in length to fit this theme. The narrative style is reminiscent of folktales in that it’s flowery and poetic. Almost every chapter works as a standalone tale and they occasionally contain nested tales. One, for example, is recounted by the narrator about an elderly lady who then tells a story to her grandkids. It’s a simple but surprisingly effective way to emphasis the mythical nature of the book.

The overall story is about the rise and fall of Bessa – the ‘city of women’. As the narrator points out almost immediately, this moniker taken literally is an inaccurate description of the city but is more or less an accurate statement given the gender politics of the book’s setting. The book tells the story of the late Sultan’s harem of 100 women after they get banished from the city by the new ascetic leader. Forced to fend for themselves in an environment that is far less luxurious than what they’re used to, they quickly create a new  egalitarian society for themselves in the desert.

The story meanders along, occasionally pauses to elaborate on the backstory of a character and switches between the POVs of many of the people in the city. There are roughly 5 main POVs but often there will be a chapter here or there following a side character who until then was just mentioned by name. Having too many viewpoints is often a recipe for disaster or at least for confusion but it works here. It never feels forced and just adds to the theme of community. It makes sense that the narrator is omniscient because it’s a made up tale so of course they can say with certainty how every character thinks and feels.

In a similar vein of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, The Steel Seraglio just oozes warmth and humour. The characters are sympathetic, optimistic and trusting of each other. They are genuinely good people trying to create something worthwhile and lasting and it’s a joy to read.

And if you’re interested in reading poc- or female-centric books, good news pal because this book is naturally chock full of them.