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Welcome to The YA Agenda, a monthly column that’s mostly just an excuse for me to squee over young adult novels new and old. For my inaugural column, I’m delighted to welcome S. A. Chakraborty, whose debut novel City of Brass comes out this month from Harper Voyager. It’s not technically YA, but one of the items on my eponymous Agenda is that I get to decide when adult fiction is YA-ish enough to be included.

gif of a pirate telling the captain of a ship that he's the captain now

City of Brass tells the story of a con artist and healer in eighteenth-century Cairo who accidentally summons a djinn and has to cope with everything that comes next. It has an extravagantly beautiful cover and a cast full of complicated, angry, interesting characters trying to find their footing in a rapidly changing world.

the cover for The City of Brass

And now: Five Questions for YA Authors (and one just for S. A. Chakraborty)

What were you watching, eating, and listening to when you were working on The City of Brass?
I wrote a good amount of this while pregnant, so I was eating quite a lot! In particular, there was a Korean bakery close by that I liked to work at, and so I consumed a LOT of red bean pastries and taro bubble tea while writing Nahri and Ali’s adventures. I like to listen to movie and television soundtracks while working—the more epic, the better—and the ones I enjoyed the most at this time were from Game of Thrones, Theeb, and Gladiator.

What were your favorite and least favorite things that you researched for this book?
The research actually predates the book (I wanted to study Middle Eastern history in graduate school and so had a lot of this under my belt already). I have a lot of favorites, but I really enjoy reading travelogues from the era. Travelers offer a fascinating snapshot into the places they visit, and I get a kick out of their complaints and much as their wonder—there are parts from Ibn Battuta’s famed account that wouldn’t be out of place in an angry Yelp review!

Least favorite: I have a love/hate relationship with medical history. I really like the history of medicine—I think it’s mesmerizing, particularly the sort of cross-cultural contact it spurs. But I can be rather squeamish, and some of these procedures are not meant for the light of heart!

What changed in the book between your initial idea for it and the final manuscript?
The book actually began as a world world-building experiment that I never intended to show a soul. I was aiming to basically create a magical version of the Islamic Gold Age crossed with traditional ideas of djinn. In Islam, we believe that djinn are not the cartoon wish-granters of Western lore, but rather intelligent, long-lived beings much like ourselves, created from smokeless fire and living unseen in our midst… essentially silent witnesses to the history that I loved.

So, I tried to imagine how the djinn might have built their civilization, one inspired by both magic and the ways of their human neighbors. Might they have recreated Baghdad’s famed library, filling it with ancient texts of magic? Adapted the medical traditions of famed physicians like Ibn Sina to treat curses instead of colds? I wrote of a hidden city designed by architects who would have watched the rise and fall of countless human empires, whose skyline would be a jagged mix of ancient ziggurats and contemporary minarets. And as I read new books, more got thrown in: coral palaces inspired by medieval Swahili ones, caverns of corpses taken from creepy Abbasid-era tales, monsters from a tenth century dhow captain’s account and more. But it remained a setting. It was only when I populated it with characters—and you know, a plot—that the story caught fire and became the book that sits on my desk today.

Who was your favorite character to write?
I love them all, but find it easiest to slip into the point of view of Ali—my awkward warrior-prince with a love of economics. That I relate so strongly to an overly fastidious, shariah-compliant nerd with terrible social graces probably suggests things about my personality that I’d rather not contemplate, but I do enjoy putting him in situations I would never want to deal with!

What are you reading now?
I’m between two books that I’m reading for a combination of research and personal interest. The first is The Warrior Women of Islam by Remke Kruk about female warriors in popular Arabic epics, and the second book is Seema Alavi's Islam and Healing, a history of medicine as it relates to Muslim India. Fiction-wise, I’m counting down the days until Tochi Onyebuchi's Beasts Made of Night comes out. It sounds amazing!

The worldbuilding in City of Brass is terrific, both when your characters are in real places (eighteenth-century Cairo) and when they’re in wholly imaginary ones (Daevabad). Can you tell us a little bit about what kind of settings to expect for the rest of the trilogy? Will we get to see new corners of this world?
Thank you! And yes...we certainly will. I suspect I’ve developed and imagined far more of this world than will ever make it into the books, but we’ll definitely be seeing some new places. In particular, we’ll be visiting Am Gezira in the next book—the al Qahtani’s home in the Arabian peninsula. I really enjoyed writing these chapters; they let me work in some amazing stories about the Nabataeans as well as the famed Queen of Saba.

Also... I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Cairo!

November Releases

Every month here at The YA Agenda, I'll be highlighting a few new releases that I'm excited about. Have you read any of these yet? Are there other YA books that have caught your eye? Get at me in the comments and let me know!

Rosemarked by Livia Blackburn
The marketing copy compares this book to Melina Marchetta’s Lumatere Chronicles, so I was sold right away. Rosemarked is about a girl stricken by the rose plague (what is a rose plague??? I do not know but I am so excited to find out!) and a boy determined to free his people from the oppressive rule of Empire. Together they infiltrate the capital city as spies. I love a political fantasy and can’t wait to read Rosemarked.

The November Girl by Lydia Kang
This book is about a girl who is a literal, non-metaphorical storm and who falls in love with a boy who is a regular human and not a weather phenomenon. That is amazing. I will just be listening to Neko Case’s "This Tornado Loves You" on repeat until I can get my hands on this book.

Not Now, Not Ever by Lily Anderson
I have deeply failed the universe in some way that it did not let me know until just now that there’s an Afro-Latina author writing teen drama adaptations of literary classics. Lily Anderson apparently has a book called The Only Thing Worse than Me Is You, a retelling of Much Ado about Nothing, and now there’s a sequel called Not Now, Not Ever, which is inspired by The Importance of Being Earnest. Assuming this isn’t all an Oscar Wilde fangirl fever dream I’m having.

And that’s a wrap for the inaugural installment of The YA Agenda! Hit me up on Twitter any time you want to scream about books, or stop by my blog, Reading the End, to be relentlessly enthused at over every book I love and every episode of Black Sails that broke my heart.

Jenny is the charming and effervescent co-host of the Reading the End bookcast. She blogs about books and other sundries at the delightful and educational Reading the End, where you will gain many excellent book recs and also learn of books about various parts of Africa that you didn't know existed before Jenny brought them into your literary life. She also makes a mean plate of cheese fries.


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