Monday, July 22, 2024

The Empire of Gold Cements Daevabad’s Remarkable Excellence

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Nothing is harder than ending a story. Anyone who has even tried their hand at writing a story knows how much harder it is to end a story compared to beginning one. Anyone can come up with an idea and type out a few pages. What do you do then? How do you end the idea?

This applies especially to a long-running series. As unfair as this is, ending a fantasy book series comes with even more pressure than most. Fantasy fans have become wary of even beginning unfinished series because of the frustrations over George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle. Authors like S.A. Chakraborty not only have to deal with the natural pressure and difficulties of their own series, but the general pressure all fantasy authors face due to the current frustrations with two of the genre’s biggest names.

I can only imagine how she felt as Empire of Gold hit bookshelves this past June. As excellent as the first two books of her Daevabad trilogy, City of Brass and Kingdom of Copper, may be, ending the story was a different challenge. Where do you take these characters to cause the most satisfaction among your readers? Where do you take the plot? What loose plot threads do you need to include, and which do you need to cut? How do you make these decisions?

Empire of Gold clocks in as easily the biggest book in the series, and despite that, you can feel the further content that I’m sure Chakraborty struggled immensely not to include.

So, how did she do? Incredibly well, in my own humble opinion. I was already a fan of these books. City of Brass and Kingdom of Copper are wonderful reads, full of characters I connected to, beautifully imagined settings, and twists that usually caught me by surprise while always tying back to the inescapably human emotions of those responsible for said twists. With Empire of Gold, the Daevabad trilogy became my favorite fantasy series in quite some time. Maybe since ASOIAF.

empire of gold marid

The thing that most pleasantly surprised me about Empire of Gold was how naturally it concluded basically everything of interest from the first two books, while also blending their somewhat different focuses and atmospheres.

City of Brass is heavily based in exploration and foundational myths; besides the obviousness of introducing a new fantasy world, Nahri and Dara literally travel from Egypt to Daevabad’s hidden location around modern-day Afghanistan. It is a huge distance where we are introduced to multiple types of elementals, their sub-types, and the dynamics between them. On the other hand, Kingdom of Copper focuses almost exclusively on the politics of Daevabad, the capital of the djinn world, with even the chapters outside of the city focused on an eventual invasion to conquer it. Much of the larger world is forgotten in this conflict.

I wondered which atmosphere Empire of Gold would focus on. Turns out it manages to do both, and remarkably well. Chakraborty uses Nahri and Ali’s flight to Egypt at the end of the previous book as an opportunity to reintroduce City of Brass’s feeling of a larger world outside of Daevabad, which brings back everything Kingdom of Copper “forgot” about. All the other elemental beings that the djinn seemingly ignore come back to play vital roles in the story. At the same time, the politics within the city of Daevabad itself feature prominently, as the main conflict continues to revolve around control of the city.

Chakraborty has created an immense world full of different powerful forces, and it would have been so easy to forget some of them for the sake of expediency. That simply does not happen here. By the time the story ends, every magical race in this world has a say in the future of the city and the larger magical world. Peris, ifrit, Marid, every one of them participates in the final conflict.

As much as I love the characters, I think this was the strongest aspect of Empire of Gold. Kingdom of Copper absolutely floored me with how much I enjoyed it, but it also gave me the false impression of the role the other races would play in the story. Chakraborty did a fantastic job of not only bringing these races back, but also making clear just how long they had planned their involvement. I am excited to go back to City of Brass and see their maneuvering in everything from Nahri’s forgotten childhood to the internal politics of Daevabad. They were involved in so much for so long, and Empire of Gold brought everything together in a stunningly seamless way.

Naturally, this made for what I thought to be a strong plot that moved well and continued Chakraborty’s skill with believably motivated twists. As usual, whenever I felt comfortable that I was sure of the direction the story would take, the plot would turn on its head, often because of something tying back to the other races and City of Brass. These were the best kind of surprises, the kind that used previous information to create entirely new context for the characters. By the end, the very nature of Nahri, Ali, Dara, and the entire world has shifted in entirely unexpected directions.

I won’t go into detail, because everyone deserves to experience this series as unspoiled as possible, but this has been a strength of Daevabad since the very beginning. It is honestly remarkable how the series consistently shifts the foundation beneath these characters in ways that permanently changes them, yet always retains the characteristics which define their every decision.

Altogether, Empire of Gold manages to be something familiar that ties the series into a cohesive whole while also consistently giving new information to recontextualize those familiar elements. It’s remarkable. I had positive expectations, but Empire of Gold still blew them away.

I also find it worth mentioning that, for as long as this book is, there is no real wasted space. Long books can be intimidating because with length typically comes monotony. We all know those dragging passages spent with locations and/or characters that are plainly uninteresting. Empire of Gold avoids this trap with stunning ease. Things never stop moving and characters never stop moving with them.

However, I don’t want to give the impression that the characters never get a chance to breathe and take stock. After all, the characters are the star of this story.

As much as I love the direction of every character in Empire of Gold, I cannot help but wonder what the overall reaction to their arcs has been. This book takes them all in some unexpected directions that challenges, if not outright destroys, the very foundations of their identities. This applies especially to Ali, who by the end of the novel has nearly become the antithesis of the person he believed himself to be back in City of Brass. One of the core themes between all three main characters is the need to respond to their entire world being uprooted. Now, that’s fairly normal in this series, but I think Empire of Gold takes these seismic shifts to an even more transformative level than ever before.

Despite this, these characters never lose the feelings and personalities that defined them throughout the entire journey. This is something Chakraborty masters throughout the entire trilogy; she is a terrific character writer who knows how to break characters apart without losing what attracts you to them. No matter who Nahri becomes throughout this series, she always maintains the mindset of a misplaced survivor. Ali always has his righteousness and hero complex. Dara always tries to redeem his past mistakes, even as he repeats them. Their alliances and power evolve endlessly, and their experiences will always inform their future decisions, but it never changes who they are at their core.

This consistency goes a long way in keeping you invested, especially with someone like Dara. Dara is objectively a terrible person. Anyone looking at him from the outside would want him to suffer harsh consequences for his crimes. That this series not only creates sympathy and empathy, but makes me actively want Dara to come out the other side happy and redeemed, is remarkable. The view from inside his head does wonders for him. Chakraborty perfectly straddles that line between acknowledging his crimes and providing context which allows readers to care despite them. Or, at the very least, invest in wanting to know his fate.

It is not easy to create sympathy for terrible people, but Empire of Gold continues the Daevabad’s consistent skill at doing so. At the very least I can understand Dara, Ghassan, Manizheh, and others. The series acknowledges the truly unrepentant characters for the unsympathetic monsters they are, such as the ifrit enslaving other djinn. Whatever tragic backstory Manizheh may have, Empire of Gold never casts doubt on her role as the villain of the novel.

In the end, there are no easy outs for those who have done evil and should suffer consequences for that evil.

Empire of Gold does suffer from the common problem of rushing some characters into beliefs that should have taken longer for them to adopt. In comparison to some book series I have read, though, this problem is minimal and only genuinely distracted me once. They are the types of somewhat convenient answers that exist in any story and do not feel at all egregious here.

In between all this character growth, Empire of Gold also continues all those beautifully melodramatic moments fans have come to love. The love triangle between Ali, Nahri, and Dara is still here, and it is filled with all the guilty longing and chastely electric moments that defined the development between these characters. When the tension eventually builds to breaking points…well, it just goes to show how sexual moments in fantasy don’t have to be nearly as cringeworthy as the stereotype says. The moments feel earned in the best ways.

This melodrama has always helped lend a deeply human feel to the epic scope the series strives for, while also assisting that feeling. The types of grand myths the Daevabad trilogy is inspired by always has these types of torturous romances between people of different race and station in life and are often among the most memorable parts of said stories. Empire of Gold had to deliver on two big novels full of build-up between Nahri and her two love interests, both on a human level and an epic level.

Yeah, the book succeeded.

I’m glad to say that with Empire of Gold now concluding the series, I can fully, without reservation, recommend Daevabad. It is undoubtedly one of the best fantasy series to come out in recent years.

Overall, the series tries to do so many things and succeeds in just about everything. It wants to create a gigantic fantasy world, complete with a magic system and secret society, based on real world mythology. It wants to be a political tale filled with backroom dealings, seismic changes in power, and ever-shifting alliances. It wants to tell epic tales of romance and personal growth. Most of all, Daevabad tries to do all of this together, with every part of the series’ epic ambition weaving together with the others.

To even try something this ambitious deserves credit, but Chakraborty manages to pull most of it off, which is incredible. This is a series that accomplishes a specific, difficult scope of theme, story, character, and setting that is remarkably impressive.

It also helps that, as a white American, Daevabad is so refreshingly different from the western fantasy I am used to. Western fantasy dominates the genre and Daevabad has a vibrancy of both color and character that breathed an unfamiliar life into the story. Chakraborty’s vividly brings the djinn world to life in a tapestry of towering walls, elaborate clothing, burning sands, and meandering rivers. After so many stories in mud, forests, and castles, I was so glad to read a series that didn’t immediately feel familiar. I went on a journey discovering something entirely unknown, just like Nahri.

I cannot speak to the full effect of representation in the series. I won’t bother trying. I hope this series is as rewarding for people looking for that representation as it was to me.

Daevabad is a rare series that I believe offers something for just about any reader. Politics, adventure, romance, family, war, hidden legacies, class struggles, redemption, race, and so on and so on. It is a highly ambitious series that somehow manages to pull off basically everything. Some aspects are better than others, but at the end of the day this is a wonderful story that I could spend thousands of words rewardingly analyzing down to the finest detail.  I may do so eventually.

If you are into fantasy, I just cannot recommend the Daevabad trilogy enough.

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