The dreaded sophomore novel is always a telling test for a new writer. And the most difficult incarnation of it may be the second novel in a super-hyped, highly acclaimed fantasy series. S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass was a superb introduction to both the author and her intricately detailed, vividly realistic world inspired by Middle Eastern legends and fairy tales.
The Kingdom of Copper begins five years later, with former Cairo grifter Nahri ensconced in the dangerous court of Daevabad, her once-friend Prince Ali on the run from his father and an unknown new threat growing stronger on the horizon. An emotionally devastating, character-driven novel that also succeeds in building out its complex world, The Kingdom of Copper is further proof that the Daevabad trilogy is on its way to becoming a modern fantasy classic. We talked to Chakraborty about the mythology that inspired her novels, why she added a new point-of-view character and more.
How was writing your second book in this series different from writing the first?
I was writing to a deadline! My first book began as this personal, private project that meandered all over the place and took nearly a decade to write—the second book I turned around in eighteen months. And while I was grateful for the opportunity to dive back into the world, it was very difficult to adjust to the crunch.
Some of the conflicts in this book are over questions of historical accuracy (what happened) and of historical interpretation (how we should feel about it). How did your passion for history influence how you deal with these sorts of questions?
It’s the constant reading of different sources. I very much believe history is written by the victors—we can look even today how different media outlets frame current events. And I wanted the characters and the world to reflect that. They’re deeply attached to their version of the past—it’s their truth, what shapes their politics and everyday lives, and yet so much of it rests on a very shaky foundation. I feel like every day I read a new interpretation of some historical fact I’ve always taken for granted, and I wanted the background of the world to seem just as volatile.
In The City of Brass and The Kingdom of Copper, Nahri is forced to deal with living under two separate occupations, first in Cairo and then in Daevabad. Why did you choose to contrast those particular regimes?
There is a bit of a spoiler for the third book in this answer that I’d like to avoid, and I don’t think we see enough of Cairo in the first book (it takes place in the earliest weeks of Napoleon’s invasion), to be able to offer a contrast just yet. That being said, I wanted it to feel like a bit of a portal fantasy that stepped back in time. Nahri’s Egypt is entering the modern era whereas the magical world is a few centuries behind humans—more so than usual because they’ve started to turn inward.
One of the things that feels different about this book is the choice to set it five years after The City of Brass concludes. So often trilogies tend to stack one book after the other with very little breathing room between. What led to the decision to give your characters that much space?
I always knew I wanted to give the characters that kind of breathing room. Nahri and Ali are fairly young in the first book when their worlds are turned upside down and they’re thrust into very different hostile environments. To me, it was a bit more interesting to pick up later—when they’ve learned to adapt and survive and train in their respective specialties (it was also important to me to show that Nahri’s medical training would take years)—and show their growth through even worse challenges.
The City of Brass is told from Nahri and Ali’s points of view. Why did you add in Dara’s perspective in The Kingdom of Copper?
The book deals with the consequences of choice. Injustice and oppression are not the sole responsibility of tyrants—they require a lot of regular people to either tacitly endorse such systems or turn a blind eye. With Dara, I wanted to introduce a character I knew people would come to love, who would be rightfully understood as a hero, as a love interest, as a fundamentally good man—and then show how someone like that can commit great evil, without ever justifying it to the readers. For the second book, it felt more effective—though heartbreaking—to accomplish this from his perspective.
I love the tribal and regional nature of magic within this series. Did the distinctions of which tribes do which kinds of magic come out of your research, or was it more of a narrative choice?
Both. In the history of the book’s world, the djinn are separated into six tribes by the Prophet Suleiman, stripped of much of their magic and cast off into the human world. They survive in many ways by quietly grubbing off the local humans they’ll later look down upon and adding what remains of their magic to human technology. So djinn who awoke in wealthy trade cities on the coast end up taking local ships and enchanting them to fly, becoming premier traders in their world.
If Ali didn’t have to deal with palace intrigue and the threat of assassination, what do you think he’d prefer to be doing with his time?
I think under different circumstances, Ali could have found happiness in the djinn village of Bir Nabat. He’s the consummate do-gooder and here he was able to help people in a far more straightforward, tangible manner—dig a well, start a school. I could see Ali making a quiet life, starting a family to replace the one he lost in Daevabad and being generally content. Unfortunately for him, his author had other ideas.
One of the things I love about this book is that the city of Daevabad is as complex a character as any in the series. How did you go about crafting a setting as complicated as Daevabad?
Haha, I worked on it for a decade! But honestly, I just tried to make it realistic, as vague as that sounds. It’s a messy, chaotic place born of centuries of occupation and forced migration—but it’s also a thriving metropolis where tens of thousands of people are just trying to get by. Magic or not, you’re going to need some order in the marketplaces, a service to pick up the trash and places where regular people socialize.
You can really feel the depth of research behind The Daevabad Trilogy as you’re reading it. Often it feels like there are stories lurking around every corner that we just aren’t privy to as readers. Can you talk about a historical story you found in your research that you loved but that just didn’t fit with the trilogy?
This is fairly silly, but I’m a big fan of the old regional folktales such as 1001 Nights and Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange, and one trope I’ve yet to find a place for are its murderous automatons. Sometimes they’re ancient sculptures that come to life with magic, other times they’re the metal creations of brilliant scientists—an early form of steampunk. Either way, if a character comes across an eerie armed statue in one of these stories, someone is definitely about to be murdered. I haven’t been able to work one in yet but I’m still hoping!
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Kingdom of Copper.