The Empire of Gold: Strong conclusion to an equally strong trilogy

The Empire of Gold by S. A. Chakraborty The Empire of Gold by S. A. Chakraborty science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Empire of Gold by S. A. Chakraborty

Cutesy tag lines for a review of The Empire of Gold (2020), S. A. Chakraborty’s concluding novel for her DAEVABAD trilogy of humans, djinn, and water elementals, sort of write themselves: “Chakraborty strikes gold with the final novel in … ” “Chakraborty is on fire with her newest … ” “Come on djinn, the water’s fine … ” (sorry). But this series doesn’t do “cute”; it’s multi-layered and, though not without humor, serious in tone and topic. So let’s just say the promise of its first two books, which garnered four stars from me in prior reviews, is easily met here in the third, which brings an excellent trilogy to a highly satisfying if bittersweet close. Some inevitable spoilers for books one and two below.

The Empire of Gold picks up pretty much right after the events of The Kingdom of Copper and as with the other, follows three (after a brief prologue) points of view: Nahri, Ali, and Dara. Nahri and Ali have escaped the conquest of Daevabad and end up magically transported to Nahri’s former home city of Cairo, with Ali carrying Suleiman’s seal, though he is unable to access its power. In fact, there is no magic at all amongst any of the djinn. Only Dara — back in Daevabad where he serves Manizheh in her brutal pacification of the city — and beings like the ifrit, marid, peri, and others can wield magic now.

Nahri and Ali’s points-of-view follow them as they spend time in Cairo, with Narhi growing ever more comfortable in her familiar haunts. But eventually her sense of responsibility to Daevabad and its people forces her to agree with Ali that they have to do something to save the city from Manizheh, and so the two head for Ali’s homeland in search of support. On the way, an encounter with an ancient and powerful marid reveals a shocking and perhaps devastating secret about Ali, one which later causes them to find different paths back to Daevabad. Meanwhile, back in Daevabad, Dara is struggling, as always, with his conscience and the burden of his past, leaving it always unclear which way he’ll go.

The Empire of Gold by S. A. Chakraborty science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsCharacterization has always been a strong point in the series, and that continues here. What I particularly like is that Chakraborty doesn’t simply start off with sharp characterization, but grows and deepens her characters so they don’t remain static throughout. She does this via a variety of methods: putting them in complex situations, throwing them together with different characters, or revealing unknown aspects of a character’s past. The characters are often forced to grow beyond themselves as they were, either by finding new sides of themselves or by building on already established character traits. Narhi is no longer simply the cynically clever con artist — she’s matured beyond that — but that element of her remains and comes into narrative play. Ali isn’t the same fundamentalist character from The City of Brass, though that aspect — and his shift away from it — drives various character and plot changes. Dara is the Scourge, but not only the Scourge. Though while Narhi and Ali both move in somewhat linear fashion toward a different self, a future self, Dara whipsaws back and forth between potential selves, between past and his possibility. And all of this blossoms wonderfully slowly as Chakraborty refuses to rush things but takes the necessary amount of time to build the characters up from who they were to who they become, alone and in relation to one another.

I also loved the characterization of the marid and peri, who aren’t simply given human traits — “they’re just like us but more powerful!” — but remain just outside our comprehension. They are strange, fantastical, as they should be.

Plot-wise, if and how Daevabad will be saved is compelling and suspenseful, but the best part is how Chakraborty continues to not offer easy solutions. Not easy in terms of logistics but in terms of morality and cost. This is not just war, but civil war. One fueled by classism and racism/bigotry, by centuries of hatred and death and slaughter. People are not going to listen to reason, they aren’t going to surrender to overwhelming odds, they’re not going to pay attention to collateral damage or to the existence of “innocents.” Restraint, in other words, is not on the menu. This is especially true of Dara, and it is his character that the heart of the story is invested in terms of the possibility of redemption, the responsibility of reparation. Others, though they perhaps don’t bear the same burden of a millennia-long past, also must find their way (or not) past desires for vengeance over past wrongs, must learn not to necessarily forgive or forget them but place them behind, put them in the past so they stop being obstacles toward gaining a future. Not an easy task, and not one everyone succeeds at (or even tries to achieve). It is a harsh world, one that forces harsh decisions and exacts some harsh consequences.

As has been the pattern in the prior novels, The Empire of Gold builds to an explosive climax in terms of action, and Chakraborty offers up some fantastic set scenes that I loved imagining on a purely visual level. If the closing few chapters are less action-oriented, they’re no less compelling thanks to the character suspense and emotional focus.

The Empire of Gold brings to a close one of the stronger recent series of fantasy works, one that combines an compelling and exciting plot, in-depth characterization, detailed and relatively fresh world creation, and a willingness to place serious concerns (race, class, imperialism, form of governance) at the forefront. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing where Chakraborty takes us next now that we’ve left Daevabad behind.

Published in June 2020. The final chapter in the bestselling, critically acclaimed Daevabad Trilogy, in which a con-woman and an idealistic djinn prince join forces to save a magical kingdom from a devastating civil war. Daevabad has fallen. After a brutal conquest stripped the city of its magic, Nahid leader Banu Manizheh and her resurrected commander, Dara, must try to repair their fraying alliance and stabilize a fractious, warring people. But the bloodletting and loss of his beloved Nahri have unleashed the worst demons of Dara’s dark past. To vanquish them, he must face some ugly truths about his history and put himself at the mercy of those he once considered enemies. Having narrowly escaped their murderous families and Daevabad’s deadly politics, Nahri and Ali, now safe in Cairo, face difficult choices of their own. While Nahri finds peace in the old rhythms and familiar comforts of her human home, she is haunted by the knowledge that the loved ones she left behind and the people who considered her a savior are at the mercy of a new tyrant. Ali, too, cannot help but look back, and is determined to return to rescue his city and the family that remains. Seeking support in his mother’s homeland, he discovers that his connection to the marid goes far deeper than expected and threatens not only his relationship with Nahri, but his very faith. As peace grows more elusive and old players return, Nahri, Ali, and Dara come to understand that in order to remake the world, they may need to fight those they once loved . . . and take a stand for those they once hurt.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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5 comments

  1. I’m reading this book right now and I’m loving it! I’m looking forward to see how it’ll all end.

  2. I set the first one of these aside with no real interest in reading the rest, but you and Terry have won me over.

    • The story does take time to buildup, and that’s in part to the world-building, which is amazing. The same thing happens in the third book, but once you get past all of the plot devices and the explanations, the story moves at an appropriate pace.

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