A remarkable accomplishment even beyond its vivid world-building and storytelling.
It is almost inevitable that the second book of a fantasy trilogy would suffer from the author’s need to jockey main characters into place for a grand finale. Fortunately, S. A. Chakraborty has avoided the dreaded middle-book slump with The Kingdom of Copper. The narrative of the second book in her Daevabad Trilogy never lags, and evades ellipses that must await resolution in the third and final book. This is a remarkable accomplishment, even beyond the vivid world-building and storytelling on display.
The Kingdom of Copper starts up where The City of Brass, the first book of the trilogy, left off. The three point-of-view characters are reeling from the consequences of that entry point’s climax: Nahri is forced into subservience in the royal household in Daevabad in spite of her inherited status as trueborn ruler of the city. Ali is a fugitive who dodges assassins and hopes to carve a life in his ancestral homeland. Dara is again being used as a weapon to wreak havoc without any regard for his own feelings.
But the author makes a substantial time jump forward, locking core characters into their new stations but otherwise operating with a fairly blank slate. There are still consequences from the first book, but, at the same time, this new story has room to operate. The plot is intimately tied to the previous book in myriad small ways, though The Kingdom of Copper also functions as its own story. This is one of its great strengths and the main reason it avoids the usual mid-trilogy doldrums.
Chakraborty, as she did with the opening book, weaves a story of whirling political intrigue, overlapping conspiracies, the legacy of the intentionally forgotten past, deep references to Islamic folklore and a wondrous, unique magic system. And, because such an element is nearly obligatory, a love triangle, though one that is quite shifting and unpredictable. As with any good fantasy, she builds in unanswerable fundamental questions, in this case about the nature of governance, war and peace and the concept of morality. The way that various characters work to formulate answers to these quandaries is a major driving force for the story.
Another great strength of this volume and of the trilogy to date is its setting. This is so-called low fantasy, where magical beings operate in the same world in which we all live, just, like in the Harry Potter books, unbeknownst to most of us. But rather than contemporary Britain, Chakraborty has set her trilogy in the early 19th century Islamic world; her characters are not secret wizards trying to blend in during morning commutes on the Tube but rather are magical djinn fitfully trying to have their own society on foggy Persian lake isles and in mountainous Arabian highlands. This backdrop is what gives The Kingdom of Copper so much energy; it is not just another tale of knights on horseback chasing dragons through alpine meadows and dark deciduous forests. Chakraborty lends her world-building a sense of authenticity with her obvious love of history, fondness for Islamic architecture and knowledge of local cuisine (seriously, follow her Twitter account and be bombarded by strange, 200-year-old recipes from Cairo). It is not exceptional that a professional novelist is able to conjure for readers the sights, smells and sounds of wherever her book happens to take place: what is exceptional is that such a book take place in a setting like this one.
As with the previous book, The Kingdom of Copper builds unrelentingly to a cataclysmic clash of magical and military power to resolve an immense political tension. Chakraborty closes with a mic drop that makes the reader question how the trilogy can be resolved. But for the third and final book, the author Chakraborty has proven that she can find an excitingly audacious yet fully plausible way to bring these characters back for one more showdown in Daevabad. Let’s hope her closing installment is as entertaining as this one.