Col (cjwatson) wrote,

Reading: Crosstalk; The City of Brass

I haven't been finding a lot of time for reading lately, but here are a couple of short reviews.

Crosstalk, by Connie Willis

Briddey Flannigan works at a smartphone company and is about to embark on the latest relationship upgrade: an empathic implant that's touted as letting partners sense each other's emotions directly. She already has an extended family who want to be in touch with her at every waking moment, and generally way too much communication. When the implant turns out not to have quite the results she was expecting, she suddenly finds herself spending a lot more time with her weird coworker who hides out down in the basement all the time, who's the only one in a position to help her deal with the sudden frightening changes.

There was an interesting story here, but unfortunately it was kind of buried. I think part of it was Willis deliberately using stiflingly excessive communication for effect, but by half-way through the book nothing much seemed to have happened and I was wishing for an editor who did a better job of deleting things. Fortunately the second half does pick up the pace, but then there's some seriously odd Irish exceptionalism going on which I had a hard time getting past (possibly it's Irish-American exceptionalism, which I never get on with; and pettily, "Briddey" is a name that just left me feeling like the author didn't know how to spell or pronounce Bridie/Bridey). On the characterisation, I agree with most of this review by Carrie S.

It was definitely fun in its way: I'm an absolute sucker for stories about the discovery of psychic powers (to my mind Julian May's Intervention is close to the pinnacle of the subgenre). But I think part of the problem is that this couldn't really decide what kind of story it was trying to be. Cut a good chunk of what was fairly flat characterisation anyway and it would make a rather good SF novella. With better lead characters it would be a decent romantic comedy, or with a bit more of a screwball injection it would work as a farce. But as it is, it's trying to be all three and it doesn't quite work.

The City of Brass, by S. A. Chakraborty

Nahri is a young woman on the streets of 18th-century Cairo who makes a living by telling fortunes, swindling nobles, and healing people: she's always had a particular gift for the last, but takes care not to make it look too strange. One day she performs what she believes to be a harmless con of a ceremony and accidentally summons a djinn, or a daeva as he prefers to be called. Forced to flee Cairo by the ifrit, she crosses the desert with the daeva to the magnificent hidden city of Daevabad, where she finds herself to be more than she'd thought and is drawn into the court politics of a civilisation of djinn that has been concealed since the days of King Suleiman. Meanwhile, Ali, the young second son of Daevabad's king, is engaged in a dangerous exercise of his principles, channelling illicit funding to the djinn/human half-bloods who make up the city's underclass.

At one level this is the classic structure of epic fantasy, especially the first volume of a trilogy as this is: naïve young protagonist (hobbit, farmboy, or whatever) is taken under the wing of an experienced but mysterious mentor and serves as a sink for exposition of the secondary world. In those terms it's a competent execution of the form, though the interleaving of Nahri's clean-slate viewpoint with Ali's somewhat insider one makes it more interesting and allows for a useful extra angle on events.

But oh, what a secondary world it is. The author is a Muslim convert, and is intentionally drawing on mediaeval Arabic literary traditions such as the 1001 Nights (I bought this book after reading this amazing Twitter thread by its author on the Nights). I haven't read much Islamic fiction, though I keep meaning to, and this definitely leaves me wanting more. It's intentionally representing people of colour and Muslims (it turns out that most of the djinn also adopted the human religion for internal political convenience), and there's a bunch of really good social commentary on the oppressed classes of Daevabad that's the kind of thing epic fantasy often somehow never quite gets round to. The history of Suleiman stamping his authority on the djinn and their subsequent fractured politics is nicely developed with plenty of room for more. Dara, the daeva Nahri summoned at the start, is a beautifully-textured character practically made of moral ambiguity. And Nahri herself is a strong protagonist with some very hard choices to make.

This was an absolute joy of a book, and goes straight on my Hugo-nominations list.

Followed by The Kingdom of Copper, expected to be published in 2019.

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Tags: books
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