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 Hod King by Josiah Bancroft

I feel that reviews become less useful further into a series. Of course, they’re important for the first and probably the second to see if quality is consistent but no one’s stumbling onto book three by accident; they already know they like the author and just want to read more. With that in mind, I’m going to be a little more critical of The Hod King than I might be for a series debut.

I noticed that the POV changes are more regimented compared to Arm of the Sphinx’s headhopping. I don’t know if this was an intentional decision, but I wasn’t a huge fan of how often and casually the POVs would switch in book 2; fortunately, The Hod King finds a comfortable compromise between it and Senlin Ascends’ solo-POV by having three clear sections following Senlin then Voleta then Edith (while occasionally dipping into other characters when it feels natural).

The book was interestingly structured – the novel (almost) entirely takes place in the ringdom of Pelphia over roughly a week. Each of the three sections covered the same week from the three perspectives. It was a little jarring to jump back in time just as things get exciting with both Senlin’s and Voleta’s story endings being cliffhangered until the future POV(s) can catch up. But that’s the nature of storytelling and the story was told quite cleverly with everything coming together in the final 100 pages or so with subtle enough foreshadowing to not be overbearing. It felt a little redundant however, to have this clear three act story structure but also have four named, distinguished parts. Splitting the story into four parts is a Books of Babel standard for sure but it might have been better to have three of the four parts line up with the three POVs and then have the fourth be an epilogue rather than having the two framing devices be separate.

Surprising no one, the prose continues to be excellent. Every sentence is given so much care, not a word is wasted – it’s just a joy to read. The book touches on some serious issues – domestic abuse, oppressed societies, torture and slavery to name a few – but does so with tact. It’s all described through a lens of whimsy yet never feels flippant or twee for its own sake. Outside of raw imagination, the characters’ voices may be Bancroft’s greatest talent and have now surely been perfected. It felt like Tarrou wasn’t gone a second, let alone a book and a half, and the new characters Eigengrau, the King, among others, were all so different and distinctly described, they were absolutely a delight.

I only read the previous books early last year and I didn’t realise how much I missed the bizarre world of the Tower but with some characteristically weird and wonderful additions (shout out to the ‘slapper-gram’ which definitely needs to be a thing), I was glad to be back. Without being too expository we learn more about the Tower with some side mentions of more ringdoms above the Silk Gardens and a future plot point in the secret electrical sea.

The biggest complaint I had was in regards to the epigraphs which were a bit pointless to be honest. They made sense in Senlin Ascends, a fun juxtaposition of the Guidebook detailing the tower and the constantly inversely stark reality. And in Arm of the Sphinx I could see the need for them, the diary entries of Captain Mudd were a clever way to fill in some history and character development without killing the pacing. But here it’s mostly just a collection of intentionally vapid sayings from a tabloid columnist. I think the intentions was to compare his faux-profound quotes with the poetry of the less popular Junet, but it came off as filling required space in order to continue the series’ style of chapter epigraphs. Like any part of a novel, they don’t have to be useful to the reader or world, but they should have some purpose even if it is to intentionally create misleading expectations like in book one.

So, I think the weakness of The Hod King was its attempt to stay in line with the first two books both in terms of the four-part structure and the epigraphs. While neither made the book significantly worse to the extent that I was disappointed by their inclusion, neither were ultimately required. It seems they were there simply because that’s what the skeleton of a Books of Babel member is expected to have. Looking at the book in their absence makes it no worse which one could argue would thus make it better.

Despite these complaints, the book really was marvellous. It was tightly plotted with Bancroft’s distinguishingly delightful prose and raised quite so many questions to answer that I’m more than looking forward to a hopefully packed concluding novel.

The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin

There’s not much that needs to be said about The Broken Earth by now. The trilogy has already made Hugo history, and everyone knows that N K Jemisin is a force to be reckoned with. So, I’m just going to go through a few of things I particularly liked about The Fifth Season which boil down to: read the book dummy, you’ll like it!

One of the biggest talking points about this book is the different tenses. I’m all for non-standard prose so I fully embraced the second-person narrative present in one of the three perspectives. This viewpoint is of Essun, a grieving mother who has to quickly leave her home in fear of persecution. Her chapters are supremely intimate, with Jemisin almost telling the reader what to feel. It can be somewhat intrusive to begin with, but you quickly get immersed in the character’s plight. Her suffering demands sympathy through the choice of narrative and if anything, the reader is left wondering until the end why this character is singled out in second-person and not the others.

Multiple points of view can sometimes be used as a crutch for complex stories. The author might realise that the reader doesn’t have access to a crucial development through the eyes of the main character(s) and so they just add another solely to showcase it (a familiar example may be Areo Hotah of ASoIaF, gifting the reader an insight into Dorne politics). This is not the case in The Fifth Season however. The two other characters, Damaya and Syen, play important roles in the story, interweaving with each other naturally. Damaya, a young girl, taken from her home to the Fulcrum to be taught how to control her powers of orogeny. Jemisin subverts the ‘magic school’ trope with the Fulcrum – it’s less a school and more a prison controlled by non-orogenes who force the young children into horrifyingly abusive relationships with a Guardian. Syen is the output of this oppressive system – a young adult, ambitious and blunt with a simmering anger at her prescribed tasks.

While speculative fiction is often read for the purposes of escapism, some of the most influential works in the genre are those that do so while combating current day socio-political issues. The race parallels in The Fifth Season are not subtle, they’re not meant to be. Jemisin is hitting us over the head with how bizarre it is that this backwards concept still exists. It’s impossible to read this book without seeing the absurd hypocrisy in how the population sees orogenes – simultaneously hating them, being terrified of them, relying on them for safety, and enslaving them. The pejorative term ‘rogga’ is used repeatedly in reference to orogenes, a clear analogue for the n word (right down to the -gga). In comparison, the slur for non-orogenes is ‘stills’ which no one really reacts to – equivalent to any attempted slur for white people (e.g. cracker, gammon) which are comparatively entirely inoffensive.

“You must remember, though, that most normal people have never seen an orogene, let alone had to do business with one, and—” She spreads her hands. “Isn’t it understandable that we might be… uncomfortable?” “Discomfort is understandable. It’s the rudeness that isn’t.” Rust this. This woman doesn’t deserve the effort of her explanation. Syen decides to save that for someone who matters. “And that’s a really shitty apology. ‘I’m sorry you’re so abnormal that I can’t manage to treat you like a human being.”

The frustration of the author is felt most keenly through the actions and words of a particularly strong orogene, Alabastor. Though he is more powerful than probably everyone in the world of The Stillness, he is still looked down upon by and a slave to the Fulcrum. It’s through him that Syen (and transitively, the reader) realises just how utterly flawed the system is.

One smaller thing I want to touch upon quickly is the topic of relationships. Polygamous and gay relationships are portrayed casually and hardly commented on. They are popular topics to be fetishized or demonised in fiction so to see them both be present without much bearing on the overall plot is a refreshing representation.

The Fifth Season isn’t a straightforward book – the magic is intentionally left vague for much of the book, the world and its history are intricately designed (with two glossaries!), and the three stories don’t quite line up until the end. Nor is it an optimistic book – it opens with filicide, later Damaya is tortured by her Guardian ‘for her own good’ and it doesn’t let up from there. But it is amazing and should absolutely be read by everyone.

The Outcast Hours by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

The Outcast Hours is the latest anthology by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin, following The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories from last year. I love stories set at night; a lack of action forces the characters to face their inner troubles, in turn making the story more introspective. That combined with me thoroughly enjoying Djinn a few months ago made this an instant request.

Anthologies, by design, have some similar theme or genre and The Outcast Hours is no different. As can be deduced from the title, it focuses on the night, on those who live and work and thrive in the midnight hours. It’s quite an open-ended theme (especially compared with Djinn’s relative rigidity of requiring a specific supernatural creature) and as a result features a vast array of genres – fantasy, horror, contemporary, slice of life, light science fiction – ranging from the darker aspects of humanity (portrayed both realistically and fantastically) to the hopeful. There are 26 stories, so I will just quickly highlight some that I particularly enjoyed.

This Book Will Find You – Sam Beckbessinger, Lauren Beukes & Dale Halvorsen
This story makes for an excellent start to the collection. It’s an intense, depressing reflection of woman’s recently ended relationship with a spooky framework pushing the story along. The reader follows a heavily self-loathing character trying to atone for the mistakes she made in said relationship and goes about it in a way that only gets more disturbing. Very creepy and entirely engrossing.

Blind Eye – Frances Hardinge
This one has a pretty original concept – it’s about a babysitter who watches children of some unsavoury types. She must take care of a little girl overnight and spooky things ensue. It’s hard to discuss it any further without delving into spoilers so just know that it’s a fast paced, exciting supernatural tale that covers more than expected with an emotional depth that’s often not seen in shorter stories.

Patron Saint of Night Puppers – Indrapramit Das
Despite the title, this was a great little tale – an anecdote almost. It sits firmly in the slice of life category following a night shift caretaker at a dog pound. In sharp contrast to almost every other story in the anthology it’s just another night taking care of dogs. Das sets up easy horror slam dunk tropes then happily subverts them repeatedly.

Tilt – Karen Onojaife
Follows a woman spending her nights at a casino trying to deal with an awful loss and given the option to fix it at a terrible price. I’m a sucker for impossible choices and Tilt delivers in spades with a simple but wonderfully executed premise. Short stories sometimes have a problem with endings, they can feel rushed or just stop arbitrarily. Mostly they end just fine but rarely are they particularly great. Onojaife leaves it on a great hook, revealing nothing but just enough all at once.

Welcome to the Haunted House – Yukimi Ogawa
What a weird story. In a good way of course, but just so odd. I’m not sure if it’s based on some folklore that I’m unaware of but wow it’s just so uniquely interesting. There’s this group of animated household objects à la Beauty and the Beast but they work in a haunted house scaring humans and can’t quite remember why or how they got there. That doesn’t really do it justice, look, read it and you’ll get me.

Lock In – William Boyle
Okay so I love The Catcher in the Rye so Lock In was an easy pick as a favourite. It’s another slice of life style book and is mildly reminiscent of Catcher in its latter half. Betsy is a young teenager who sneaks out of catholic school at night to wander the streets and find a cinema after being disillusioned with her authority figures. The story finishes fittingly but I would like an extension just to see what she gets up to for the rest of the night.

A Partial Beginner’s Guide to the Lucy Temerlin Home for Broken Shapeshifters – Kuzhail Manickavel
First of all, what a fantastic title; I love long, detailed titles like this. Secondly, if only one of these stories should be expanded, it must be this one. It’s a sort of epistolary novel that acts as a welcome guide for an orphanage that brings up a hundred questions despite being one of the shortest stories in the anthology. There’s so much potential here, I need more!

After reading The Djinn Falls in Love, I had an interesting chat with Shurin on /r/fantasy about how he and Murad grapple with their anthologies’ structures for ‘probably too long’ (his words not mine!) so I would be remiss to not quickly give some thoughts on it in this instance. Generally speaking, the stories were well organised. Each tale was very different to its predecessor with shifts in either genre, setting or tone almost every time. In fact, it was so well done that there were two adjacent stories that happened to stick out just by nature of being mildly similar. There were also interludes scattered in every few stories that were an interesting addition. They provided a nice breather every so often, but I don’t think they were really necessary. They were very short pieces of flash fiction that were unrelated and seemed more experimental than anything else.

Ask any book blogger and they’ll say the same thing: anthologies are hard to review. There will always be some great stories, some bad and a lot that fit somewhere in between. Ultimately, I read anthologies to force myself to explore new genres, discover new authors, and see how wildly people’s perspectives interpret a common theme. If the job of the editors is to accomplish these goals, The Outcast Hours is nothing short of a resounding success.

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.

The Traitor God by Cameron Johnston

The Traitor God is a noir murder mystery wrapped up in a fantasy setting. It’s a violent, adrenaline-filled adventure through a heavily segregated city split into the upper- and lower-class areas. I enjoyed the book as a whole but there were some issues I had. Unfortunately for a first person single POV book, the main character was one of the biggest. Edrin Walker is, by design, not a particularly likeable protagonist. It’s not necessary for the main character to be heroic or even just mostly good – Mark Lawrence pulls this off excellently in The Broken Empire. Jorg is a despicable person but he embraces it and it’s clear how his personality was formed. Edrin, however, just repeatedly tells himself how horrible he is in a self-loathing manner that is incredibly difficult to sympathise with especially at times when it’s at odds with his actions. I think perhaps the book would have benefitted from being written in third person or at least a less personal first person – just seeing Edrin’s actions would have been enough to show he’s meant to be this nuanced, troubled character. Instead, the reader is treated to constant internal monologues that forcibly remind them how tortured Edrin is which just gets a bit excessive.

Fortunately, however, I felt that Edrin was the only weak link in an otherwise strong cast of characters. The story is very much about Edrin but there are many supporting characters that subtly flesh out the city in a not too exposition-heavy way. My favourite is Charra with whom Edrin has a refreshingly platonic relationship. Johnson carefully balances her character by showing how the city guards and Edrin respect her enough not to pick fights and contrasts that with how she raises her daughter (who is badass in her own right) in the quite dangerous slums. There’s also Eva, a powerful paladin who defies the old Warrior Woman In Impractical Armour trope and the wizened leader of the Mages who Johnson manages to flesh out far more than expected with such little ‘screen time’.

The plot itself was a bit of a let-down by and large. Generally, in fantasy I’m more interested in the characters and world building but since this was a murder mystery novel, the mystery is the whole point. I’m usually completely dense when it comes to mysteries – in City of Lies I didn’t figure who the villain was until moments before it was revealed. In The Traitor God, the villain’s identity is honestly easy to figure out beforehand. The book is very-paced which is fine for the most part but waiting a little longer for the reveal or masking it more thoroughly would have gone a long way. It also relies on one of my least favourite storytelling mechanics – memories being blocked that slowly resurface. They always reappear at conveniently appropriate times and each memory is just important enough to be interesting or relevant in the moment.

At the end of the day, I did enjoy reading The Traitor God. It does some interesting things – the magic system is compelling, and I have a tendency to prefer standalone novels – but ultimately there wasn’t much to stand out as particularly amazing. It wasn’t bad by any stretch it just wasn’t something exciting or innovative. The Traitor God is definitely worth a read if you’re interested in murder mysteries or morally dubious protagonists.