City of Brass [S A Chakraborty]

Start Date: 10 October, 2020

Finish Date: 12 October, 2020

Source: Amazon Kindle India Store

Goodreads summary:

Among the bustling markets of eighteenth century Cairo, the city’s outcasts eke out a living swindling rich Ottoman nobles and foreign invaders alike.
But alongside this new world the old stories linger. Tales of djinn and spirits. Of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert, full of enchantment, desire and riches. Where magic pours down every street, hanging in the air like dust.
Many wish their lives could be filled with such wonder, but not Nahri. She knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about them. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes…
Be careful what you wish for.

Goodreads link.

Notes:

  • I came to this after about three years of osmosis in which I saw various people rave about it on goodreads, my books Whatsapp group, and finally want to do a podcast with me about it. I recorded the podcast, and then found that I had lost almost the whole recording. So I decided to read it myself before recording afresh. And am I glad of it!
  • One of the pleasures of this book is catching all the Persian / Arabic / Turkish names and words that you are slightly, but not regularly, exposed to; and getting to play with them or wonder what they are. Examples:
    • ishtas, which the glossary says is “a small, scaled creature obsessed with organization and footwear.” Nothing to do with an ishtadev, then, as I first speculated.
    • I wondered if the Geziri tribe is from the same word as Jazeera
    • And is Ghassan the same as Hassan?
    • The character named Anahid sent me looking in Wikipedia, where I found Anahita, and learned all about the deities that seemed to cross over from one religion to another in Persia and Armenia. And that in turn reminded me of Peter Brown’s line about the Persians thinking that Zoroastrianism was too good a religion to waste on their Armenian subjects.
    • Seeing the spelling Darayavahoush for Darius, I wondered if it has anything to do with rivers – but nope, false cognate as far as I can make out from the internet
  • I usually roll my eyes at categorisation and trying to make 2 by 2 matrices in fiction; but I liked how various beings are sorted into elements: humans are creatures of earth, daevas or djinns of fire, marids of water, and peris of air. How very The Fifth Element. Is Nahri going to turn out to be a Milla Jovovichish perfect being?
  • Marids being beings of water – friends had talked about them as “water genies” – and that made me think of Iff the Genie from Haroun and the Sea of Stories. From the little we see of marids in this book of the trilogy, that is a severely inappropriate comparison.
  • As an outgrowth of that, humans are “dirt blooded” – so, accurate in terms of the categorisation, but creepily close to the Harry Potter ‘mudblood’.
  • If the fish worshipping in Hierapolis was a reference to something, I didn’t catch it at all. I still haven’t annotated Fall, but that’s another book which is pointing and gesturing to the fact that religion in the Near East is much weirder than we know about. Now I need to find out what this Greek fish worship is. And egad, how will it link up with HP Lovecraft stories?
  • Seeing the term simurgh reminded me that Salman Rushdie had a very weird debut novel called Grimus that I read when I was very young – perhaps inappropriately so, and which I’ve forgotten all about. S A Chakraborty makes simurghs out to be phoenixes (phoenices?), which didn’t come across from the Rushdie book. I don’t know if the ‘djinns are beings of fire so why not have bird of fire too’ angle is from her or always existed.
  • After years of seeing ‘Qaid-e-Azam Jinnah’ and never wondering about the actual translation, I finally had to think about what a Qaid actually was – “the top military official”, per the glossary.
  • I had never heard of a Karkadann before.
  • I don’t actually have that much to say about the plot, except that I continue to find twists about betrayal annoying. I also am not horribly curious about why Dara is freed from slavery; it seems like a standard MacGuffin to me. But S A Chakraborty’s action scenes were amazingly well crafted.
  • In terms of larger themes, this does seem to be a fantasy treatment of Islamic Arabia versus Zoroastrian Persia. And the bit about Solomon / Suleiman scattering the djinns into six different tribes for the greater good made me wonder if S A Chakraborty was drawing an analogy to how Muslims have split off into Sunnis, Shias, and so forth. But that then begs the question of who the Solomon is who brought about the Shia-Sunni split; and what greater good that accomplishes.
  • Scattering the djinns into six different tribes who don’t interact with each other is a bit Tower of Babel also, no?
  • Somehow, the Indian / Agnivanshi representation wasn’t super exciting for me. It was there, but not very important. So… meh?

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