Book Review: The Candle and The Flame

the candle and the flameThe Candle and The Flame
by Nafiza Azad
Young Adult / Fantasy
391 pages
Published May 2019

The setting of this book reminds me of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Fatima survived the slaughter of the entire population of her city, and since then it has been repopulated by people from many countries, walks of life, cultures, and languages. The city is a complete melting pot, and I wish more had been made of that fact, honestly.

I wish more had been made of a lot of things in this book. I liked it – but it wasn’t as spectacular as I’d hoped. It’s possible it’s because I read it right after We Hunt the Flame, which any book would have trouble standing up to; it’s possible it’s because I was coming down with a cold when I read it and my brain wasn’t throwing itself into the story as much as it normally does. There’s a lot of possible reasons – but I just didn’t love it. It wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t great.

I mean, it’s djinns and humans working together – that’s usually my catnip – but I just couldn’t lose myself in this story. I was annoyed at the main character a LOT. For insisting on going by two names the entire book, which were a mouthful. For agreeing to things she should have fought. For fighting against things that were in her own best interests.

The changes that the description speaks of – that change Fatima in ways she can’t fathom – effectively turns her into a different person. Something about that sat very wrong with me. Her sister recognized she was no longer the sister she knew, but she wasn’t allowed to grieve. That bothered me quite a lot. I can’t explain exactly why without spoiling plot, but the book didn’t treat it like an issue, and it definitely was.

Honestly, I’d skip this one and go read We Hunt The Flame or Rebel of the Sands instead.

From the cover of The Candle and The Flame:

A GIRL WITH THE FIRE OF A DJINNI. A CITY SCARRED BY VIOLENCE.

Fatima lives in the city of Noor, a thriving stop along the Silk Road. There the music of myriad languages fills the air, and people of all faiths thread their lives together. However, the city bears scars of its recent past, when the chaotic tribe of Shayateen Djinn slaughtered its entire population – except for Fatima and two other humans. Now rules by a new maharajah, Noor is protected from the Shayateen by the Ifrit, Djinn of order and reason, and by their commander, Zulfikar.

But when one of the most potent of the Ifrit dies, trouble brews and Fatima is changed in ways she cannot fathom, ways that scare even those who love her. Oud in hand, Fatima is drawn into the intrigues of the maharajah and his sister, the affairs of Zulfikar and the Djinn, and the dangers of a magical battlefield.

Nafiza Azad weaves an immersive tale of extraordinary magic and the importance of names; fiercely independent women; enticing food; and, perhaps most importantly, the work for harmony within a city of a thousand religions, cultures, languages, and cadences. 

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Book Review: We Hunt The Flame

we hunt the flameWe Hunt The Flame
by Hafsah Faizal
Young Adult/Fantasy
472 pages
Published May 2019

This is the first book in a planned duology, and I NEED THE SECOND ONE RIGHT NOW. Zafira is a firecracker, and Nasir is a precious gumdrop, and Altair is a mystery, while I can’t help but read Kifah as Valkyrie from Avengers. (Seriously, if this ever gets made into a movie and Tessa Thompson DOESN’T get cast as Kifah, I’ll be upset.)

These characters, and this setting, and this worldbuilding, and this plot…Faizal has blown me away with this book. There are twists I saw coming, and some I did not, so I’m not going to go into much detail about the plot, but Zafira and a few other people are searching for a magical artifact to restore magic to their kingdom, after it was locked away many years ago. I don’t remember exactly how long it’s been; Zafira can’t remember having magic, but she does mention at one point that her mother was a healer. So sometime during her mother’s lifetime? The kingdom has been cursed in the absence of magic, different curses for the different districts, and the Arz is a magical forest encroaching on the borders. Almost no one who goes into the Arz ever comes out again, so it’s incredibly dangerous for anyone who isn’t Zafira. Zafira has the unique ability to always know which direction she needs to go to reach her goal, and it’s this ability that brings her to the attention of the Silver Witch, who sets her on the path to find the artifact. The artifact is, of course, on the enchanted island that serves as a prison for all the magical objects and creatures, so Zafira and her companions face all kinds of unknown dangers.

I really enjoyed basically everything about this book. There was character development, a touch of romance, a team learning to work as a team, secrets, magic, ancient evils, trauma and emotional work…just a lot. (Also enemies-to-lovers, if you’re into that.) It is a brilliant epic fantasy, and I cannot WAIT for the second book. I need to know what happens! (It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, exactly, but things are definitely NOT. RESOLVED.)

From the cover of We Hunt The Flame:

PEOPLE LIVED BECAUSE SHE KILLED.

PEOPLE DIED BECAUSE HE LIVED.

Zafira is the Hunter, disguising herself as a man when she braves the cursed forest of the Arz to feed her people. Nasir is the Prince of Death, assassinating those foolish enough to defy his autocratic father, the sultan. If Zafira is exposed as a girl, all of her achievements will be rejected; if Nasir displays his compassion, his father will punish him in the most brutal of ways. Both Zafira and Nasir are legends in the kingdom of Arawiya – but neither wants to be.

War is brewing, and the Arz sweeps closer with each passing day, engulfing the land in shadow. While Zafira embarks on a quest to uncover a lost artifact that can restore magic to her suffering world and stop the Arz, Nasir is sent by the sultan on a similar mission: retrieve the artifact and kill the Hunter. But an ancient evil stirs as their journey unfolds – and the prize they seek may pose a threat greater than either can imagine.

Set in a richly detailed world inspired by ancient Arabia, We Hunt The Flame is a gripping debut of discovery, conquering fear, and taking identity into your own hands.

Book Review: Frankenstein in Baghdad

frankenstein in baghdadFrankenstein in Baghdad
by Ahmed Saadawi (Trans. Jonathan Wright)
Contemporary Fiction / Magical Realism
281 pages
Published in Arabic in 2013, in English 2018

This book won at least two awards; the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and France’s Grand Prize for Fantasy, and the author had previously been named one of the 39 best Arab authors under the age of 39. I picked it up to read for the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge, since the Middle East is all-too-often neglected in regional groupings like that. People don’t think of it as Europe or Asia. I also try to read translated books on occasion, in an effort to diversify my reading. So this hit a number of my interests – I  wish I had actually liked the book more!

It’s an interesting retelling of Frankenstein – which I haven’t actually read, and now feel like I really should. But it bounces around between several viewpoints. It’s not too many to keep straight, but it’s definitely too many to truly care about. And it suffers from an unreliable narrator – it’s written as several stories told to an author from multiple people that he’s woven together into a single narrative, and while he does that well, it suffers from contradictions between how different characters recall things, scenes that don’t play a part in furthering the plot but the characters thought they were important, and no authoritative “this is what REALLY happened” to draw it all together.

And I very much dislike unreliable narrators, so that alone is enough to make me dislike the book. If you like ambiguous narratives and vigilante stories, however, you might enjoy this, and the writing style itself was quite engrossing.

From the cover of Frankenstein in Baghdad:

From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi – a scavenger and an oddball fixture at the local cafe – collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and to give them proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city. Hadi soon realizes he’s created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive – first from the guilty, and then from anyone in its path. With white-knuckle horror and black humor, Frankenstein in Baghdad captures the surreal reality of contemporary Iraq.

Book Review: The Kingdom of Copper

kingdom of copperThe Kingdom of Copper
by S. A. Chakraborty
Fantasy
620 pages
Published January 2019

I….may have an unpopular opinion on this book. First, I LOVED the first book of this trilogy, The City of Brass. Absolutely loved it. It was one of my favorite books of that year. I like this one significantly less. I think that probably wouldn’t be the case if I had read this in quick succession, but I read City of Brass when it came out, and had to wait a year for this one, in which time I read around 200 more books.

I expected a certain amount of backstory explanation in Kingdom of Copper – and it wasn’t there. I think the book assumes you remember everything that happened in City of Brass – and I most certainly did not. I don’t remember why we have the division between the djinn and the daeva, or really which is which. I know the shafit are part human, part…djinn? Daeva? See that’s the problem. These are very politicky books and forgetting key parts of the political drama makes this book VERY hard to follow. I don’t know WHY there’s conflict between certain people, and I don’t recognize missteps when characters make them because I’ve forgotten who has which opinions.

All the worldbuilding explanations are in the first book, and they aren’t revisited in this one. Had I KNOWN that, I might have re-read City of Brass before this came out, as much as I dislike re-reading anything.

All of that aside, and despite my confusion, I mostly enjoyed this continuation of Nahri’s story. We delved a little more into murky bloodlines, the more recent past of Daevabad, and the more ancient past of Nahri’s healer ancestors, the Nahids.

I still love Nahri, I like Ali a little more, and I like Dara a little less. I am curious to see where the third book leads, especially after the cliffhanger ending of this one. I just might have to re-read both City of Brass and this one before reading the trilogy’s conclusion.

From the cover of The Kingdom of Copper:

Nahri’s life changed forever the moment she accidentally summoned Dara, a formidable mysterious djinn, during one of her schemes. Whisked away from her home in Cairo, she was thrust into the dazzling royal court of Daevabad – and quickly discovered she would need all her grifter instincts to survive there. 

Now, with Daevabad entrenched in the dark aftermath of a devastating battle, Nahri must forge a new path for herself. But even as she embraces her heritage and the power it holds, she knows she’s been trapped in a gilded cage, watched by a king who rules from the throne that once belonged to her family – and one misstep will doom her tribe.

Meanwhile, Ali has been exiled for daring to defy his father. Hunted by assassins and adrift on the unforgiving copper sands of his ancestral land, he must rely on the frightening abilities the marid – the unpredictable water spirits – have gifted him. But in doing so, he risks unearthing a terrible secret his family has long kept buried.

And as a new century approaches and the djinn gather within Daevabad’s towering brass walls for a great celebration, a threat brews unseen in the desolate north. It’s a force that would bring a storm of fire straight to the city’s gates . . . and one that seeks the aid of a warrior caught between worlds, torn between a violent duty he can never escape and a peace he fears he will never deserve.

Book Review: Darius the Great is Not Okay

darius the great is not okayDarius the Great is Not Okay
by Adib Khorram
Young Adult/Contemporary Fiction
314 pages
Published August 2018

This novel got a lot of hype before and after its release – and it deserves it. It has great minority representation, from Persian (and bi-racial!) to Zoroastrian and Baha’i, to clinical depression and male friendship. You could also read gay and/or asexual into it, but that’s not explicitly mentioned. Romantic love is just never addressed; perhaps because the story just doesn’t involve it, but you could definitely read the main character as ace.

Darius is a great main character. He’s funny, self-deprecating, and complex. He has clinical depression, is medicated for it, and can sometimes tell when it’s the depression making him think a certain way, but sometimes he can’t. He’s biracial, visiting Iran and his mother’s Persian family for the first time, and adjusting to Persian social norms and traditions while trying not to lose sight of his American life. His connection with his father is tenuous and fraught with miscommunication, and lot of the book is spent wrestling with that relationship. His new friend, Sohrab, is a great foil to that, as his father is completely absent from his life, having been arrested and thrown in jail prior to the start of the story, largely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and being part of a minority religion.

There are so many small things touched on this book – suspicion at customs when flying through, bullying at school for being Persian, not speaking his family’s language because his mother didn’t teach it to him (and feeling cut off because of it) – all little things that a lot of immigrant children deal with.

Aside from the cultural things the book addresses, there’s also the mental health aspect. Both Darius and his father have clinical depression, and there’s stigma attached to having the diagnosis, and to taking pills for it. We see how their mental states affects their relationship with each other and with the rest of their family, and it’s quite powerful. The author talks about having clinical depression in an afterword, and includes some resources that helped him. This is an #ownvoices novel in more ways than one, and it really shows. Excellent book.

From the cover of Darius the Great is Not Okay:

Darius Kellner speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows more about Hobbit social cues than Persian ones. He’s a Fractional Persian – half, his mom’s side – and his first-ever trip to Iran is about to change his life.

Darius has never really fit in at home, and he’s sure things are going to be the same in Iran. His clinical depression doesn’t exactly help matters, and trying to explain his medication to his grandparents only makes things harder. Then Darius meets Sohrab, the boy next door, and everything changes. Soon, they’re spending their days together, playing soccer, eating faludeh, and talking for hours on a secret rooftop overlooking the city’s skyline. Sohrab calls him Darioush – the original Farsi version of his name – and Darius has never felt more like himself than he does now that he’s Darioush to Sohrab.

By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut is for anyone who’s ever felt not good enough – then met a friend who makes them feel so much better than okay. 

Book Review: Headscarves and Hymens

headscarves and hymensHeadscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs A Sexual Revolution
by Mona Eltahawy
Nonfiction – Women’s Rights/Feminism
240 pages
Published 2015

Headscarves and Hymens was the third book in Book Riot’s Persist: Feminist Book Club, which is what brought it to my attention. We’ve been reading roughly two chapters a week and talking about it via Instagram Live. It’s certainly not my favorite venue to use – for one, I can’t seem to find a setting to let me know when someone goes live on Instagram, so I have to set myself an alarm. (I missed one book club session because I just forgot.) I also can’t seem to watch the videos after they’re over, so I can’t catch up on what I missed. I much prefer the Twitter chat that YA_Pride does. I can go back through those, and still have conversations with other people that read the book (and follow them!) where I can’t do that easily with Persist.

But you’re here to hear about the book, not the club! HH is short, under 250 pages, with seven chapters and an epilogue. Each chapter is basically an essay on a topic, from driving (“Roads Through the Desert”) to veiling (“Black Veil, White Flag”) to purity and Female Genital Mutilation (“The God of Virginity”). Eltahawy is well-researched, mixing anecdotes and statistics to show us both the big picture of what is going on, as well as making it personal and hard-hitting.

I’m glad we read it in small chunks – some of the chapters are harder than others (the chapter on FGM and sexual “purity” was particularly rough). Spacing it out let the information really sink in before moving on to another topic. Additionally, we were reading it at the same time as the Kavanaugh hearings, and that was also….unsettling.

This is a really eye-opening book, but be sure you’re emotionally prepared to read it. It’s probably healthier to set it down and walk away for breaks, rather than to read it straight through.

From the cover of Headscarves and Hymens:

The journalist Mona Eltahawy is no stranger to controversy. Through her articles and actions she has fought for the autonomy, security, and dignity of Muslim women, drawing vocal supporters and detractors. Now, in her first book, Headscarves and Hymens, Eltahawy has prepared a definitive condemnation of the repressive forces – political, cultural, and religious – that reduce millions of women to second-class citizens.

Drawing on her years as a campaigner for and commentator on women’s issues in the Middle East, she explains that since the Arab Spring began in 2010, women in the Arab world have had two revolutions to undertake: one fought alongside men, against oppressive regimes, and another fought against an entire political and economic system that represses women in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and other nations.

Eltahawy has traveled across the Middle East and North Africa, meeting with women and listening to their stories. Her book is a plea for outrage and action on their behalf, confronting a “toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend.” A manifesto motivated by hope and fury in equal measure, Headscarves and Hymens is as illuminating as it is incendiary.