Nahri is a young woman alone in 18th century Cairo, a place where young women should not be alone. To survive, she has established a reputation for herself as a healer and woman who can help with supernatural problems, such as banishing unwanted djinns from inhabiting a person. In reality, she is a con artist, using her reputation to find her next mark. She doesn’t actually believe in magic or djinns, despite the fact that she has an unnatural ability to heal people, and she can understand any language after hearing it just once. During a ritual to exorcise a young girl from demons, Nahri inadvertently summons a real djinn, Dara.
This has the side effect of attracting the attention of several other wicked creatures who set out to find Nahri. Dara takes her with him on a journey to the city of Daevabad, the mythic home of all the djinn tribes. There, Nahri meets the royal family, including the younger prince Ali, who is a rebel and idealist struggling to find peace and equality for all the tribes as well as the shafit, the djinn-human mixed race people who are treated as second-class citizens.
Nahri learns that she is the long-lost daughter of the last of a great tribe of djinn healers and is welcomed almost as a goddess. She has to learn how to navigate palace politics as well as learn new rules of healing with magic. In an effort to unite the tribes and put a halt to escalating violence in the city, the king decides that a marriage between Nahri and his eldest son is in order. Nahri is devastated to learn that Dara has a vicious history in the city and is known as the Scourge of Daevabad for his actions in a war 1400 years ago. She must decide whether to believe him when he has never been forthcoming with her before, trust her increasing friendship with Ali, or trust her own instincts which are telling her that nothing is what it seems.
This debut novel was rich with Middle Eastern mythology and culture, strong world building, and stronger characters. And it is an #Ownvoices story, which is awesome. I’ve never read a Muslim fantasy before and let me tell you, it was so cool to read about a culture that is not familiar to me. I loved it.
Chakraborty weaves a vibrant, rich tapestry for her readers and does a beautiful job painting a picture of life not only in her fantasy world, but also how elements of Islam are interwoven throughout seamlessly. I loved how descriptive the writing was. I could smell the spices in the air at the bazaar, and feel the heat of the desert air rising up from the dunes. The colors and sounds and scents were immersive, practically a virtual reality experience leaping out of the pages.
The characters are all flawed and deeply human and even the ones you aren’t really supposed to like, you still find yourself caring about in some way or another. That is a rare thing for me as a reader. I don’t often care about all the characters, but this book made me love Nahri and Ali, made me frustrated with Dara, made me suspect the king but in a way that didn’t make me hate him. Every character had well defined personalities and behaved within the scope of them. It is always annoying when characters have their personalities violated by their own authors; that never happened here. Everything the characters did, even if it was a surprise, was never ‘out of character’.
I absolutely loved this book and cannot wait for the next in the trilogy.
© Kristen McQuinn