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Monday, July 13, 2020

The Empire Of Gold by S. A. Chakraborty (reviewed by Will Byrnes)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The City Of Brass
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Kingdom Of Copper

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "Do you know how many times I’ve had to do this? Forget healing, my specialty should be having my life destroyed and then being forced to rebuild from nothing."

 "Yet everything was just a touch off. There were empty spaces where conjured buildings should have stood, ugly pockmarks on the skyline. The brass walls were tarnished, the edifices—on closer inspection—riddled with missing bricks and blackened mortar. Defying any weather pattern Nahri knew, somehow the eastern half of the island was draped in snow while the sun scorched the western half so fiercely small fires smoldered in the scrubby hills. A hazy black cloud revealed itself to be a swarm of flies, and the ruined Citadel still lay bare to the sky like a scar, its tower half-drowned in the lake. Just like the mountains, Daevabad was sick…"

I finished reading The Kingdom of Copper, the second volume in The Daevabad Trilogy, in December, 2018. Yet, when I picked up the final book in S.A. Chakraborty’s fantastical work, The Empire of Gold, in late April, 2020, it was if I had finished reading #2 the week before. She is such a good writer that you are instantly drawn into the adventures of her characters, and not only their external journeys and challenges, but their struggles, to figure out what the right thing is to do, devise a means of doing it. The most decent way forward is not always all that obvious. This helps you root for them, not that you will need much help, to find their way through the moral mazes that appear, overcome considerable obstacles, and try their damndest to make right what has been made wrong.

If this is your introduction to the Daevabad trilogy, stop right now, catch the next available flying carpet, go back to The City Of Brass and treat yourself to the first two wonderful books in this series, or I will sic a shedu and a piri on you. If you had read the earlier volumes you would know what those are.

So, we’re all caught up on books 1 and 2, right? Daevabad suffered some deep calamity at the end of book 2. Now Ali and Nahri pop up on the outskirts of Cairo, after having jumped into the lake surrounding the city of Daevabad to flee imminent mortal peril, and expecting to be facing a challenging, but do-able lake swim. Wait, what? How did they get there? What is going on? Be of good cheer, worthy reader. All secrets will be revealed.

Manizeh, Nahri’s Mommy Dearest, is doing her best to win friends and influence people, for her opposition. The body count in Daevabad is considerable, helped along by Manizeh’s incapacity for politics, and a mega death-dealing field commander in Dara, who would like nothing more than to follow his own conscience, but is his will truly and fully his own?

In addition to having to endure the awfulness of Manizeh’s rule, Daevabad, the capital city of djinn-dom, has lost its magic, and is falling apart, literally. Something needs to be done. But Manizeh’s only tools seem to be killing and demolition. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. So, what’s left? There are plots aplenty roiling within and without the city limits. But will another war destroy the city in order to save it? Well, there are those two kids meandering about in Cairo.

Nahri and Ali are recuperating from their battles and recent escape, reconnecting with some old friends and family, including some very unexpected family, and trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Nahri returns to her medical roots and wonders if that might be enough of a life for her.

It is seriously tempting. And they manage to get some quality time together on a felucca, wafting their way upriver. You know there are boy-girl embers there, and plenty of high energy escapades and battles to keep emotional levels high. They try to match how many times each saves the other’s life, but it can be so tough keeping track. They also spend considerable time searching for, and learning about, their familial roots. So, a fair bit of journey of self-discovery in here too. Chakraborty is much taken with the ancient Islamic travel journals that are an important piece of Islamic culture. People were not considered truly educated until they had done significant traveling, seen a bit of the world. So her heroes must range far and wide to learn enough to earn their knowledge and insight. There will be surprises. Another piece of this is Chakraborty’s fondnesss for libraries, which meshes well with the urge to learn. (She wrote a lot of the trilogy in a library, and has spent much research time in libraries near and far.) Libraries in the series are magical places, and gain considerable attention in this book as well.

Ali is determined to return to Daevabad and liberate it. Through her medical and community work, Nahri had developed a following there, and feels responsible to her followers for trying to repair the damage her mother has done. But making such an attempt, particularly knowing that it would entail having to face one of the greatest single warriors in history, and lacking magic, could be a suicidal mission. Nahri and Ali would both have to make huge personal sacrifices in order to rid Daevabad of its new evil overlord. There is a lot on family, regional, hell, even interspecies politics here. Plots to be plotted, plans to be made, attacks to defend against and foment, and, critically, strange alliances to be forged.

There is also an uptick in the creature level. We get a much better look at piris, and some crocodilian Nile dwellers, and ancient gods, and there is even a battle that involves kaiju-level beasties. What joy!

The chapters alternate, with Nahri, Ali and Dara all getting good shares of the page-count pie. I liked that there was more equitable balance between the main characters than there was in volume 2.

Volume 3 felt a bit more YA than the first two volumes, but not problematically so. The underlying payload, however, remains very grown up. Themes persist from the prior books. Chakraborty is holding up a mirror to the political hazards of our actual world. She portrays a particularly oppressive state, with a system designed to crush resistance, and places within it people who are willing to fight for justice. She also wants to show that struggle against oppression is a long, hard slog, with many losses to accompany the occasional victories. And one must always contend with demon of despair.

Ali offers a look at how a devout person (reflecting Chakraborty’s Islamic faith) might contend with systemic injustice. Monarchy gets no aureate glow here. Massacres committed on behalf of autocratic leaders bear an unfortunate resemblance to reality. How the trauma of conquest persists on occupied people for generations after the main event has plenty of resonance with the world today. It is still a challenge to find a way past the hostilities and travesties of the past, in order to form a more perfect Daevabad. And what about something totally nuts, like dreaming of a bit of power distribution instead of always replacing one boss with another? I know, call me crazy.

She also takes issue with what is a frequent trope in YA medieval fantasy, monarchies that rule for centuries undisturbed.

"Oh, this kingdom was eight hundred years. There’s no kingdoms that lasted for eight hundred years. There’s this one stable ruling family? I think we should pull that apart a bit." - from the Fantasy Inn interview

And the notion that a rightful heir is ordained by a higher power and will rule wisely if only he or she can assume their rightful place. Medieval? For sure. Sane? Not at all.

There are some wonderful additions to the cast. My favorite was a female pirate. She is tough as nails and offers some LOL moments, which are most welcome. She is not at all intimidated by Ali, despite his having that Suleimain seal thing inside him, mocking his recently expanded affinity for things aqueous:

"Fiza, however--God bless her--had stopped finding anything about his transformation intimidating and treated him with her normal base level of rudeness. “Yes, your wateriness,” she said with a sarcastic bow."

The love element is not reduced to girl meets boy, or triangulated to girl meets hot djinn AND boy. Chakraborty wanted to get away from the bodice-ripping, all-consuming passion that marks many fantasy novels. Considering how long these characters live, happily ever after might carry some extra baggage. Also, love is diverse and messy. Nahri learned from childhood never to trust anyone. Makes it even tougher to skip through the usual minefields of romantic attraction. Ali had his strict religious upbringing and must contend with the awkwardness of the object of his desire being his brother’s wife. Messy. And then there are political considerations, (would you be with someone from the family that murdered large numbers of your people? Again?). Then there are career pieces. Nahri wants to be a doctor, for example. How will that fit into her schedule if she is busy raising an army and helping lead it? How would that work if she gets killed trying to free her home? (But how perfect it is in 2020 to have a lead character in a fantasy series whose primary ambition in life is to be a doctor.)

The older moms get a look too, and not just as wallpaper. Manizez is not simply a monster, but a mother, and must contend with conflicting emotions when her child opposes her. Ali’s mother is more of a family first sort, eager to protect her progeny above all else. They are powerful, and very engaged in the world, complex, fleshed out characters.

There are many names to keep track of, but there is a who’s who in the back of the book. Some names will come back to you from reading the earlier books. The list is not exhaustive, though, so I would keep track of any new names.

S. A. has begun work on another trilogy, not djinns this time, lady pirates in the 13th century. But she is only at the very beginning, so it will be a good long while before her next trilogy appears.

CONCLUSION: I really have no gripes about this book. Loved it from beginning to end, and the only disappointment was that the series ended. I will say it straight. This series is frickin’ amazing! The Daevabad trilogy offers an intelligent take on family, religion, duty, and morality, is informed by an expert’s take on folklore and Middle Eastern history, and takes on fantasy tropes. The final volume presents characters you already love mixed with a bunch of exciting fresh faces, sustains a wicked pace of action throughout, and gives you plenty of reasons to stay up very late reading. This Empire is pure, twenty-four-carat magnificence.

NOTE: This review was originally posted on Will's Goodreads page.


Immanuel said...

Nice review! this book caught my attention thanks to its marvelous cover, I am glad I read this review because now I know that there are two books that I should read before getting to The Empire of Gold.



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