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One Good Thing: Get lost in the gorgeous fantasy of the Daevabad trilogy, based on Islamic legends

The book series is a triumph of world-building, with sneakily compelling characters.

The cover for The City of Brass, the first book in the Daevabad trilogy.
The cover for The City of Brass, the first book in the Daevabad trilogy.
Harper Voyager
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

For me, there is little better than finishing a book I really like, then realizing every other entry in the series gets a little longer than the last. When I really just want to get lost in another world, because I’m taking some time off or I need a mental break or I just want to stop thinking about the world, I love knowing there’s a lot of some other world to get lost in.

So it goes with S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy. Its three books — 2017’s The City of Brass, 2019’s The Kingdom of Copper, and 2020’s The Empire of Gold — slowly but surely build out a version of our world that lives just next door to this reality. The idea of another world that can be laid atop this one is certainly not a new idea in fantasy literature, but what makes Chakraborty’s books so compelling is that the myths and legends they draw from center on Islam and stem from the Middle East.

In the world of her trilogy, all roads lead to Daevabad, a magical city, mostly hidden from human eyes. It’s a world of powerful djinn and monsters unlike those in most other fantasy texts. And it’s a world where you’ll be constantly flipping back to the map at the front of the book picturing northern Africa and much of Asia, trying to figure out which magical groups come from what parts of Chakraborty’s other world.

There’s a ton of mythology and lore to introduce to readers, and even if you’re strongly familiar with Islamic legends, Chakraborty’s level of research runs deep enough to perhaps send you digging for one of the magical beings she references. I, who am not familiar with Islamic legends, spent a lot of time Googling some of her world-building and came away with a greater understanding of and appreciation for stories I just hadn’t heard before. If you’re curious, Charkaborty has a rather extensive rundown of her world and characters on her website, though you should be forewarned that the rundown does include mild spoilers for various characters’ true identities.

But if you are not inclined to Google the world-building of your new favorite fantasy novel, the Daevabad trilogy offers a hugely entertaining story, filled with memorable characters, great twists, and an intricate setting to get lost in.

The books center on Nahri, a Cairo-based con artist who uses strange abilities she doesn’t really question to swindle people. Nahri doesn’t know anything of the magical world that lives right alongside her own, but when she accidentally draws the attention of a djinn (a powerful fire elemental) named Dara, she is swept into a journey to the city of Daevabad, a gleaming place where the various magical nations of the world come together to live in an enormous, beautiful metropolis.

Chakraborty also cuts frequently to Alizayd, the youngest son of Daevabad’s current king and someone who grows more and more frustrated by the inequities built into Daevabad’s social ladder. Would you believe Nahri, Dara, and Alizayd get into a love triangle? Probably, given the tropes of this genre. But this love triangle is especially well handled because there are compelling reasons for Nahri to fall for Dara or Alizayd. And Chakraborty doesn’t push either pairing too explicitly. Readers are allowed to read into the stolen moments the characters have with each other as they wish.

Nahri is the chief reason I consumed this trilogy as quickly as I did. She’s a wonderful character, a lightning-quick thinker and an intuitively deft politician. I love stories about unlikely people having to navigate the elaborate social webs of a society they unexpectedly find themselves integrating into, and Nahri is a terrific example of that character type. Chakraborty’s confidence as a writer grows across the series, but she never falters when writing Nahri, which makes even the occasional shaky passages of the series work.

The Daevabad trilogy also ripples with political intrigue. Fantasy often provides a great lens to look at politics through a funhouse mirror, because its depiction of a world that is usually still highly monarchical allows for characters to ascend and descend the ladders of power in a manner directly based on who has favor with the ruler. (Obviously, the same happens in modern liberal democracies, but the process is often less direct.)

Like so many other great works of modern fantasy, Charkaborty’s books are focused on the ways in which games of power ignore the very real oppression those with power push onto those without it. Sometimes, it happens without the powerful even realizing what they’re doing. Nahri goes from someone with almost nothing to someone with almost everything (and back and forth again), which gives her a better window into how difficult it can be to live in this world without any kind of power. Yet even she is frequently seduced by a life of luxury and power.

What’s more, the trilogy is very pointedly set in the early 19th century — Napoleon is mentioned very early in the first book — right before colonization of the Middle East by European countries began in earnest. At every level of her trilogy, Chakraborty is examining why so many people who believe they’re doing the right thing are willing to subjugate others in the name of what they perceive to be good.

Lest that all sound like a super-weighty series of tomes, these books also have fun magic and monsters and harrowing escapes from danger carried out in the nick of time. The Daevabad trilogy nails everything I want in a big fantasy series like this: The characters are fun, the plotting is sharp, and the books are long enough to lose myself in for days or weeks at a time.

The Daevabad trilogy is available everywhere books are sold. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.

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