The political corkscrews of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones meets the emotion and imagination of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted in this marvelous debut fantasy. A young con artist from 18th century Cairo learns that her mysterious parentage—and her ability to work small magics—might be connected to the nearly forgotten legends of the djinn, Suleiman the Magnificent, and the mysterious brass city of Daevabad. When Nahri is forced by the warrior djinn Dara to visit Daevabad and leave her old life behind, she never expects the opportunities that suddenly open to her—or the enemies that lurk in the shadows.
The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty won our hearts in November with its gutsy heroine, its deep mythology, and its vibrant worldbuilding—and the editorial team named The City of Brass as the month’s #1 debut book.
But as the author told us in a conversation by phone last month, she got a lot of help from the history and folktales of the Middle East, India, and northern Africa to help her create her novel brimming with djinn, water spirits, and magic.
Amazon Book Review: You’ve been talking about this book for several months now at conventions and Book Con and so forth. What’s it like talking about your book months before people actually can get their hands on the book?
S. A. Chakraborty: You know, I was very anxious and nervous at first. I started all of this knowing nothing. This is the first book I wrote. And it’s been fantastic—I’ve really been given some great opportunities. The subject and creating the world and everything was such a passion project for me before I even started looking toward publishing, so I like talking about it. People would say, “Hey would you tell us about the history” And twenty minutes later, they would say, “Would you stop talking about the history?” So I’m enjoying it.
This is actually your first book, not just the first book you’ve published?
No, this is the first book that I wrote.
That is impressive. That doesn’t happen very often.
Thank you. Yeah, I didn’t set out to [publish it]. I wanted to do my Ph.D. in history and go the professor route, but I had a baby and I was home while my husband was working, and I thought, "I’ll write all the history that I like into a historical fan fiction, and it will be something I never show anyone." And then I joined a writing group and I sent out a couple short stories to learn what I was doing. I worked on it for a few years, and that was this book.
No spoilers of course… but there’s quite a surprising reveal at the end about a missing person. I kept thinking about for days after I finished the book. It’s one of those wonderful reveals that makes the reader want to leap into book two immediately. So, no pressure—but how’s book two coming along?
I just sent a draft of book two off to my editor last week, so it’s coming along well. We’re taking it at a speed that I’m comfortable with, because it’s now only the second book I’ve written. But I always envisioned it as a trilogy even when it was a project I wasn’t going to show anyone, so I pretty much knew what I wanted to do for book two. And by the time I sold book one, I had a draft of book two. We’re hoping to get it out next year [in 2018].
The second book is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not! [Laughs]
It’s the opposite! Everyone’s always telling me that the second book is the hardest book you’ll ever write. I’m like, “That’s great. Thank you. Now I feel really good.” [Laughs] You know what, I feel like I can’t complain too much. I’ve been given a lot of opportunities for the first book, and it is a dream for so many people. I’m just really trying to enjoy it and enjoy the fact that I can even be doing this and I’m writing for an audience that I’ve always wanted to write for and talk to about my own community. I’m just trying to enjoy the whole process.
What have you learned about the publishing process that was a surprise?
Um, everything? [Laughs] Let me think... They’ll tell me “You got a starred review!” and I’ll Google it or text my agent, asking, “Is this a good thing?” I’m learning everything. One thing that I really didn’t know was just the time that everything would take—which I’m okay with. People would say, “Oh, everything in publishing moves so slow,” and I’m like, “YES! I have another year to work on my next book.” So that was one of the things that was surprising but has worked out for me so far.
You’ve quite an extensive reading list on your website of the historical research you did. Yet this is a fantasy novel. Would you say that the research and your knowledge gave a strong flavoring to The City of Brass or is the historical research more like the book’s backbone?
I think it’s more its backbone. It very much started off as historical fan fiction. I have studied these places for so many years, and I wanted to re-create them in some way. In the book, which has different tribes and everything, those [people] came from very real histories and certain empires and cultures and real families. The ideas like how Suleiman punished the djinn… that came straight from that Talmud and the Koran. I added my characters and some of my rules of magic and everything, but [my research] really forms the heart of the story.
Dara is a fascinating character. He has an extensive and mysterious background that’s revealed as the book progresses, and he’s protective of the main heroine, Nahri. But he’s still fighting his own demons. Based on how complex he is, I imagine he was either a fun character to write or a challenging one, but not a simple one.
No, definitely not a simple one. I think sometimes in fantasy and even in literary fiction we have this dashing, charismatic, dark warrior character. But in real life—in reality and in history, and even in our own day and age—people like that are pretty dangerous: the charismatic leader who wants to drag things back to the good ol’ times. We know that’s something we know to be wary of now, especially in my community. So writing Dara is interesting. I like it, but when I would write from his perspective, which I would do a lot for practice, I had to stick with a darkness that did not always felt natural to me but I felt was an inherent part of his character. It was an interesting process.
Do you know how the trilogy is going to end?
Yes. I have a very specific scene in mind to end it.
Do you ever write a scene and look back at it and think, “Wow, that was brilliant?!”
[Laughs] Usually the more I love a scene, the more, two months later, I realize it doesn’t fit with the plot any more. Sometimes after diving back into my history books and the folktales, the flavor of them will be on my mind, and then I’ll go and write a scene, and they always come out so much better. They just have this taste of an older world. I’ll go back and read [a scene], and I’ll think, “Yes, this is why I started writing these things and sharing these things.”
Sign up for the Amazon Book Review: Best books of the month * author interviews * the reading life * and more