Tag Archives: fantasy

The Unicorn Rescue Society: The Secret of the Himalayas by Adam Gidwitz and Hena Khan illustrated by Hatem Aly

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The Unicorn Rescue Society: The Secret of the Himalayas by Adam Gidwitz and Hena Khan illustrated by Hatem Aly

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This middle grades 208 page book is part of a series, but this particular installment is co-authored by Hena Khan, takes place in Pakistan, and features Muslim side characters in the quest to find and protect the mythical, magical, and illusive unicorns.  The adventure is quick, the cultural and religious references sincere and appreciated, the characters quirky and fun, and the writing smooth and enjoyable.  I can’t speak for the whole series, but I think second to fourth grade readers will enjoy the eccentric teacher, the clever kids, and the knowledge about animals, culture, and geography that is woven in to the story to keep it engaging.  I don’t think you need to read the books in order, but I would encourage it.

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SYNOPSIS:

Elliot and Uchenna are elementary aged students and also members of the secret, Unicorn Rescue Society.  When a classmate starts a newspaper and interviews local businessman, the kids teacher, Professor Mito Fauna spots what he thinks is a unicorn horn in an accompanying picture and is determined to go and protect, once found, the imaginative creatures.  He enlists the kids and Jersey, a creature with a blue body, red wings, a goat face, clawed front legs and hooved hindlegs, to set off in his single propeller plane for the Himalaya mountains of Pakistan.

They arrive in Torghar, Pakistan and make a rough landing that nearly kills a local boy.  Alhumdulillah, Waleed is fine, and in true Pakistani and Islamic tradition the boy takes the visitors to his grandmothers home to be fed and welcomed.  Waleed agrees to help the Americans find a man known only as the “Watcher,” to see what he knows about unicorns and the hunters that come to poach for sport.

Hiking the mountains and getting short of breath makes each act that much more difficult, but alas the kids find the Watcher, aka Asim Sahib, but sadly *SPOILER* don’t find unicorns.  Rather a species of mountain goats, markhors, that have two long twisted magical looking horns. The wealthy businessman brothers also show up in their helicopter to capture, not kill the markhors.

The rescue society follows them and learn that the sinister brother are testing out the magical properties of a bezoar on pit viper bites.  Needless to say it doesn’t work and the rescue society must rescue the dying butler, and captured markhors.  All is not lost, even if they didn’t find any unicorns, at least they made new friends, and know that if they haven’t found the unicorns yet, hopefully no one else has either.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that there is praying, and thikr, and ayats from the Quran quoted and explained in the book regarding saving animals, caring for each other and trusting Allah swt.  There is culture regarding taking gifts, welcoming guests, drinking tea and even breaking stereotypes of what a boy from Lahore visiting his family in the mountains knows and doesn’t know.  It isn’t preachy on any accounts, but the messages relayed in their silly way are very well woven in and leave a wonderfully represented impression of Islam, Muslims, and Pakistan.

The diversity featured in the book is nice, even within the main characters: one is an African American girl, one a Jewish boy, and the teacher is Hispanic.  The story at the end, A History of The Secret Order of the Unicorns, takes place during the reign of Charlemagne at a monastery, and features a boy named Khaled and his little sister Lubna. It is clearly intentional and a reflection of the author and illustrator.

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FLAGS:

There are some possibly gross moments featuring the goats licking urine, tea being made from the markhors’ saliva and the near death of a man requiring venom to be sucked from his leg.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book is definitely below a middle school book club level, but I think younger elementary teachers and parents would see students get hooked on the series and would benefit from having the books around.

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The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

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The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

This series is adult fantasy written by a Muslim author for her ummah and contains Muslim characters. I think the series as a whole is definitely not YA, as the main characters would age out of the target demographic, but I think that book one could qualify. I’ve contacted the author to get her perspective on the matter, and will update this if I hear back. So why am I reviewing it? Because it is so good, and I’ve heard of a lot of people letting/encouraging their teens to read it, and honestly, I did as well. There is complex world building, implied physical interactions, one hinted at gay romance, alcohol, concubines, violence, djinn, ifrits, killing and one kiss/slight make out session. There is also Middle Eastern culture, Islam, and a fiery protagonist that make the 530 pages in the first book fly by. I’m only reviewing the first book, and I think 14 years and up can handle it, I know my 14 year old and I haven’t stopped talking about it, and it has been quite fun to fan girl with her over it.

SYNOPSIS:

Nahri is living in 18th Century Cairo. She is completely alone and always has been. To survive she relies on her healing abilities and her ability to steal, cheat, and con her way to food and shelter. She knows nothing of her past, but is able to pick up any language after hearing a few words. At a performance to con a family needing help healing their daughter, she accidentally summons a djinn, Dara, which in turn awakens a graveyard full of ifrit, and sends Nahri on the run. Not trusting Dara they are travel companions none-the-less as they make their way to Daaevabad, a protected home of the fire beings, and the only place Dara thinks she will be safe. Along the way on the month long journey, Nahri tries to learn about the djinn, called Daeva, and the creatures they are running from. She also learns that she is the last surviving Nahid, healer, and while she may be a shafit, a half blood, she has powers and lineage the kingdom desires. Dara isn’t forthcoming with information, as a result his dark past and incredible powers keep Nahri on edge. She is constantly plotting her escape from the magic carpet carrying them and the future that she doesn’t understand let alone know if she wants.

The book is told from Nahri’s perspective and from Ali’s as well. Ali is the second born son to the king of Daevabad and has been raised away from the palace at the citadel. With a soft spot for the shafit, second class citizens of Daevabad, he gets tangled up in a plot to free child slaves and gets called back to the palace to be watched and tested as his brother’s future Qaid, the top military official that he has been preparing for his entire life. Ali is already an outcast to his family, as a devout Muslim in practice, belief, and actions, unlike his family who identify as Muslim for political unity.

Once Nahri and Dara cross in to Daevabad and the two narratives come together, the politicking, deception, deceit, and historical complexities get intense. The king demands that Ali get to know Nahri so that she can be persuaded to marry the emir, Muntadhir, but Nahri is in love with Dara and struggling to learn how to be a healer in the mythical world. To say that the story gets messy with the djinn tribes, and the manipulation of power and historical atrocities would be a simplification. But the writing is superb, and the world building encompassing. The book doesn’t drag and even after reading all three volumes, you’ll find yourself thrilled to know that the author has some additional points of view online.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The author takes a lot of liberties with Prophet Suleiman’s story, but it is fiction and I don’t think that anyone would be mislead by the information given about him and his control over the djinn. The “Islamic” elements in the book are really just that, elements, they aren’t plot lines, or more than just a layer to the setting and the characters. The history and the cultural richness is made more complete by the foods, clothes, and salat times mentioned, but there is nothing Islamic fiction about the text.

I love the writing. Period. It is engaging and doesn’t lag or feel repetitive. The characters are very fleshed out: no one is good or bad, the entire cast is shades of gray, and their motives and intentions are often debatable. My daughter and I have argued and I don’t think we have tried this hard to convince each other about characters since Harry Potter, and it is so great!

FLAGS:

SPOILERS: Dara and Nahri have chemistry and they kiss and long for each other, but it isn’t the bulk of the story line. Ali starts to fall for Nahri, but he has poor judgement so it is by and large dismissed. Muntadhir is always drinking wine and courting courtesans and is never in his own bed, nothing is detailed, it is said in passing, or implied. It is also hinted that Muntadhir is in love with his best friend, a male, and pretty much everyone knows, and they just look the other way. It does not state anything explicitly about them, but it is hinted at, implied, and mentioned by the other man’s father that the prince has broken his son’s heart numerous times.

Wine is always present, as is stealing, and lying. There is a lot of violence, not overt gore, but occasionally graphic as Nahri is a healer and there is a war simmering in the current time line, and a historical one that wiped about a whole tribe that is discussed throughout.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t be able to do this for middle school, but perhaps closer to the end of the school year, I would suggest that the high school book club consider it. There is a ton online for this award winning debut novel, so I’ll just include the author’s website: http://sachakraborty.com

Happy Reading!

The Theft of Sunlight by Intisar Khanani

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The Theft of Sunlight by Intisar Khanani

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Breathe, deep breaths, exhale, phew.  This book is good, like really good, but it ends on a cliff hanger and I was not prepared for it because I read a digital copy and didn’t think 528 pages had gone by.  Needless to say I was not emotionally prepared for there not to be a resolution.  Then the afterward said it was a duology, and I may have freaked out and contacted the wonderfully patient author and had her talk me down, because such words could imply that Thorn was book one.  Also, when I’m frantic I don’t read clearly, but now all is well, she assured me there will be a conclusion, inshaAllah, to Rae’s story.  Picking up chronologically where Thorn left off, this book is a companion in the Dauntelss Path series, but follows a different protagonist and while I highly suggest reading Thorn first, it is not necessary to understand this original tale.  So, phew, I am breathing again, and happy to venture back to Menaiya to share my review of a lovely story, written by an amazing Muslim who once again weaves such an engulfing tale that doesn’t drag or have holes in the narrative, is filled with strong female characters, and text that reads so effortlessly it just sweeps you away.  Truly it is fun for middle school and up (13+), and clearly I’m not passionate about books and fictional characters and don’t need to get a reality check.  

SYNOPSIS:

The book opens in a small village where Rae is in the market with her littlest sister Bean and their friends, Ani and Seri, when the unspeakable happens: Seri goes missing.  This isn’t a tale of a child who has wandered off, it is about a child taken by the snatchers and the materialization that the rumors and horrors they have been hearing of children being taken, becoming very real.  Niya, Rae’s middle sister is a secret mage who tries to track Seri, but can’t break through the mark that keeps her hidden.  As the townsfolk exhaust all resources and resolve she is just another child lost, Rae gets an opportunity to find answers.  Her pregnant cousin has invited her to spend the summer at the royal court and attend the wedding of Prince Kestrin and Princess Alyrra.  Convinced that the palace must have more information about the snatchers, Rae reluctantly agrees to go and investigate what is being done to stop the country’s loss of children.  Rae is nervous to leave her horse ranch, afraid of the teasing she will receive because of her twisted clubbed foot, but above all desperate to help her friend’s family.  

Everything about Tarinon baffles Rae: the extreme poverty on the outer skirts of the palace, the vacant stares of the children, the ignorance of the courtiers, the politicking and secrets.  She doesn’t get much time to ease into this new role though, because she is thrust head first in to it when asked to be one of Princess Alyrra’s attendants. She once again reluctantly agrees, with the hope of getting answers to help recover Seri and other lost children.  After tests to gage if the princess can trust Rae, the two join together to secretly unravel what is going on.  This work in and of itself is incredibly dangerous as those that ask questions often go missing.  Her work is compounded when the princess sends her to get information from the head of a thief ring, Red Hawk, and his informants.  The closer Rae gets to answers, the more perilous situations she gets in and out of, often having to count on her bravery, determination, and wit to stay alive.  She finds an unlikely ally in Red Hawk’s right hand man Bren, help and friendship in an employee in the tax office, Kirrana, and the need for favors from a Fae mage and his Cormorant.  As the investigation progresses, it leads to battles with neighboring thief rings, Rae held hostage at one point, getting her finger chopped off at another, the Circle of Mages seeming guilty, and royalty within the palace duplicitously involved.  All this while a week long royal wedding is underway and the princess’s brother is attempting to kill the princess.  No wonder 500 plus pages still ends with a cliffhanger, eh?

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the world building and detail and speed of the story, but I’ve really delayed writing this review as I try and pinpoint and articulate what it is about the characters that I truly am invested in.  And the answer is, I really don’t know, it probably it isn’t just one thing.  They are believable, and flawed, yet so very strong.  Rae in particular has her own self doubt and questioning, but she is a force and she makes mistakes, yet is still gracious and humble, she really is well rounded. There might be some romantic twinges between Rae and Bren, but she isn’t going to compromise one bit of who she is for him or anyone for that matter, which doesn’t mean though that she isn’t still growing and learning.  The book absorbs you right away, there aren’t dull parts that you skim over, or character’s that you mess up and have to go back and clarify.  Unequivocally, the writing is superb.    

The snatchers are inspired by the slave trade and child trafficking that unfortunately is not fiction and is all too real.  I think the edginess and intensity is heightened when that realization occurs for the reader to see that it isn’t just a fictitious conflict within a fantasy plot.

There is nothing Islamic in the book, the characters have their own religion that pops up as Speakers are involved in healing the recovered children and Alyrra goes to pray at one point, but it doesn’t detail what that looks like.  The author is Muslim.

FLAGS:

The book is remarkably clean, especially for the genre.  It does mention that some of the girls snatched end up in brothels, and the guards sent to investigate take advantage.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think I would absolutely do this for a middle school book club book.  To open the students eyes to quality writing, taking a real problem and nesting it in fiction to be sorted out, and just to see their response to the journey that Rae under takes would make for a great lunchtime discussion.  The book has not been released yet, so there aren’t a lot of reader’s guides or author interviews about it, but I suspect there will be soon.

Thorn by Intisar Khanani

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Thorn by Intisar Khanani

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I finished this book, all 512 pages, and before closing it at 12:44 am, I picked up my phone and sent the author a thank you message on instagram.  Yes, it was that good and that fun, and so well written and so encompassing that I don’t feel like I read a book, I feel like I got to know a friend.  There is abuse, and death and sexual assault, but I think thirteen and up can handle and appreciate the crimes and the severity of them, as they are not taken lightly.  The book has magic and royalty, but is so much more about choice and justice and making life meaningful, that Thorn will stay with you as you imagine her life, long after you turn the last page.  ***I did not know it was a retelling of Goose Girl by the Brothers Grimm prior to reading the book, and only read it after writing this review, so forgive me for being so swept away by Falada and Kestrin and loathsome to Corbe’ and Valka, if it so irks you that I am.***

SYNOPSIS:

Princess Alyrra is set to marry Prince Kestrin in a neighboring country.  Unloved and unwanted by her own mother and abused by her brother, none of the royal family can figure out why the King of Menaiya would be coming to see her and appraise the match.  One possibility is because the royal Menaiyan family tends to disappear at alarming rates, and Alyrra might just be a princess that no one will miss.  When a Menaiyan mage comes to warn her and is pushed aside by a magic Lady, Alyrra may be leaving an abusive brother, but getting herself a much bigger nightmare to manage.

Alyrra is known for her honesty.  She stood up for a servant against a Lord’s daughter and prospective wife for her brother, and since then, the royals despise her and the servants adore her.  She spends her time with the holsters and cooks and they keep her aware of her cruel brother’s locations.  When the visiting entourage comes, they see her tormentor and give her a security detail, as well as see how she is beloved by the staff.

Once the match is arranged she is off to Menaiya with Valka, the girl she revealed to be a thief.  Along the way, the Lady presents herself again and switches Valka and Alyrra’s bodies, to give Valka another chance to be queen and to use the real Valka as a tool to destroy the royal family.  The only person in the traveling group aware of the switch, and that can see through it, is Falada a white talking horse, that only speaks to the real Alyrra and refuses to be ridden.

When the girls arrive at the palace, the pretend princess dismisses Alyrra, who has decided to rename herself Thoreena, Thorn.  She asks the king if there are any available positions and thus becomes the Goose Girl.

Thorn is still summoned to the castle to write letters home for the imposter and the prince and former security quad find something off with a former lady of the court finding such contentment in manual labor.  As she settles in to life with the other employees she finds laughter and companionship and only Falada prods her to reclaim her position as princess and save Prince Kestrin from the Lady.

When Falada is killed, and street justice is called on to avenge the brutal rape and killing of a friend, Thorn must decide to enjoy her quiet life or step up and be the change the people and royals of Menaiya need.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it isn’t a sappy love story, it really could have been, but Thorn is calling the shots and she is enough without anyone or with everyone.  I love that she is secure in any role and that her sense of loyalty and obligation comes from within.  The writing is seamless, so often things are repeated and forced upon in a first person present tense story, but this read easily and held my interest.  I love the titles and some of the sprinkling of made up words, it gave depth and richness, as well as the struggle that Thorn had to go through to speak the language.  I loved that she had to work to acquire the skills to communicate and that it was a part of the story, it didn’t just happen, nor did it get swept aside.

Thorn is religious, but no idea what religion or what it means, she seeks going to the temple for peace and clarity, and we know she takes off her shoes, but that is about it.  The author is Muslim and the book is superb.  I had my daughter read it before I read it, and she in turn made me read it, even watching her younger siblings so I could sneak away.

FLAGS:

Death, murder, public execution, hanging, sexual assault, rape, abuse, violence.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am thinking to do it as a book club book if and when we return to school.  It would depend a bit on the group, but I think older middle school could handle it toward the end of the year.  There is a lot to discuss, a lot that readers could understand differently regarding the Lady, when her secret identity was blown, the value of love and choice, that I am confident that the conversation would be rich and enlightening.

The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

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The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

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It takes about 124 pages to be swept away to the city of Noor, but once it happens, it is hard to come back.  The 391 page fantasy story takes a while to get going, but the character driven plot filled with amazingly strong and diverse women is worth the slow start.  Middle school readers and up (AR 5.8) will enjoy the blend of Islamic imagery, sub-continent Asian culture, fire, Ifrits, Djinn, family, relate-ablity and good quality story telling.  The fact that it is a main stream book, with so much religion and culture makes it all the more remarkable in its universal appeal.

SYNOPSIS:

Fatima is a Muslim girl adopted by a Hindu family, only everyone in the entire city was killed eight years ago except for Fatima, her adopted sister, and an elderly lady, when the Shayateen attacked.  The orderly Ifrit were asked to defeat the Shayateen and protect the city, and when they did, the wealthy returned along with people from other cities.  Thus Noor is now a vibrant city of different backgrounds, cultures, religions, and languages repopulated and ruled in halves by the Maharaja, Aarush and Ifrit Emir, Zulfikar.

Fatima works as a messenger and her favorite place to deliver packages to is an old book shop owned by Firdaus, an Ifrit she regards as a fatherly figure.  He has taught her languages and provides her a place to learn and grow.  When he dies in front of Fatima, she is forever changed, literally, he transfers his powers to her, and she is now not only part human, part Ifrit, but also the Name Giver, an incredibly powerful and important being in bringing the smokeless Djinn from their wold to her hers.

With rebel forces threatening the Maharaja’s rule, Ghul and Shayateen entering the city, a taint threatening the leader of the Ifrit, a traitor in each palace, and a budding romance between Fatima and Zulfiqar, the characters pull you in and create an enjoyable story that is vivid, fantastic, and hard to put down.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The story doesn’t have a neat and tidy plot culminating in a climax, but the character arcs and vivid world building pull you in and keep you interested.  I love that the characters are different and complex and unique, and that women are so so strong and celebrated for their strength in all spheres, not at the expense of the males, but solidly in their own right.  It is refreshing and glorious to see the matriarchal Ifrit world contrasted with the human world, and the strong females that emerge in both.

I love that there is so much diversity and tolerance and the book doesn’t shy away from presenting faith practices and acceptance in such an honest manner.  There is a four page glossary and it is needed, yet not overwhelming at the same time.  The most read page in the book for me however, was the Dramatis Personae page listing the characters.  Until that 124 page mark, I was constantly flipping back trying to keep everyone straight, not so much because the characters are confusing, but “what” they are took a little while to stick.

I got sucked in by this book truly, I ignored my children during our Corona virus quarantine one day to read the second half, and I don’t regret it one bit.  The romance, was a bit cheesy at the end, but it was clean, and sweet and presented as a way forward, not as a settling or sacrificing choice for either character which was greatly appreciated.

FLAGS:

There are a few kisses once the two main characters are married.  There is stalking and attempted sexual assault by a character, but Fatima more than took care of that with the support of many strong females.  There is mention of a homosexual relationship, but not dwelled on, and I think one could argue that there is  possibly something more going on between two of the females, but it isn’t explored.  There is death and killing and violence, but nothing extreme.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I had hoped to sneak this in for book club next month, but with school closed indefinitely, it might have to wait until next year. I think girls will gravitate more to it than boys, but I think that is ok, because often girls need more of a nudge, in my experience, to give fantasy a try.  I am trying to convince my daughter to read it, but the first 100 pages are pretty slow, so if I can’t force her through it, I don’t know what chance I’ll have, here’s hoping.

NPR Review: https://www.npr.org/2019/05/18/724120066/language-has-magic-in-the-candle-and-the-flame

Interview with Nafiza Azad and Hafsah Faizal (We Hunt the Flame) https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=hafsah-faizal-and-nafiza-azad-interview

The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

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The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

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At the risk of sounding pretentious or like I have written a book before, sadly this really reads like a debut novel.  At 311 pages, there is a lot to love about this Muslim authored, Muslim protagonist sci-fi/dystopian adventure, but I have so many more questions about everything after reading the book, than I did before I started, that unless the next book (assuming there will be one), really steps it up- all the world building will have fallen flat with the lack of character connection I felt. At times I had to force myself to read through the lulls in the story, while at other times, I sacrificed precious sleep to read just a bit more.  The story is pretty clean and would have no problem letting my 5th grader read it, even while knowing it will have more appeal to my 8th grader.

SYNOPSIS:

It is 2099, and Earth has flooded forcing everyone to live underwater.  Set in London, 16-year-old Leyla McQueen, a submersible racer, lives alone with her dog Jojo.  Her mother has passed away and her father has recently been taken away to an unknown place for an unknown reason.  It is Christmas, and Muslim Leyla spends the day with her best friends, twins Theo and Tabby.  With futuristic technology, the wealthy twins show the reader what life under the sea entails and the world the characters now inhabit.  Pausing to recall the day the Earth flooded, New Years brings a huge race, the London Marathon, and Leyla somehow gets one of the 100 spots to enter the dangerous submersible race.  The winner gets whatever they want, and Leyla hopes to win, so that she might ask for her father to be released.

By opting to not harm someone, Leyla’s last minute reactions earn her the championship title of the race, however, her request to have her father freed is denied and instead she is gifted a submarine and the attention of the authorities who have ransacked her apartment, and stolen and destroyed her home.  Feeling like she has no reason to stay in London, she plots to escape the borders and go search for her father alone.  A family friend, she calls Grandpa, knows more than he has ever let on, and forces a friend’s son to keep an eye on Leyla, Ari.

Ari and Leyla explore the ocean, while Leyla whines and makes poor decisions, narrowly getting out of each situation, but not seeming to really learn her lesson.  As people appear and help them along the way, she finds where her father is being held, but not much else, and then poof, a few action scenes later to try and rescue her father, and Ari is captured and the book ends.

WHY I LIKE IT:

You have to respect the author who’s bio on the back flap of a Disney, Hyperion published book starts off with, “a British-born Muslim of Afghan descent,” and who dedicates the book to “my fellow Pathans.  We too are worthy of taking the helm.” I love it! Seriously, way to be so confident in who you are, and your story, that you own it and wear it with pride.  Truly, I felt empowered and can only imagine what Pathan girls everywhere would feel opening the book.

Similarly, Leyla, owns her Islam by praying, reading Quran, saying Bismillah before she races, and inshaAllah when she hopes in for things in the future.  She does get a bit close to Ari and doesn’t find that a problem.  She doesn’t cover, and there are no other Muslim characters in the book, but she is definitely religious, and it is seamlessly woven into her character without mentioning anything about what Islam is or stands for, but giving it authentic attention.

There are a few twists, one particularly large one, but not a whole lot of answers, or details.  There is no understanding as to why Leyla’s father has been taken, what happened to everyone other than those in the UK (especially Afghanistan, where Leyla presumably would have family), why so many people are willing to help Leyla find her dad, why Grandpa tells Leyla nothing at all, about Ari’s friend who died, and so much more.  So often it just feels that Leyla is whining and getting no where in her rash and stubbornness, but everyone seems to love her. Perhaps, everyone but me.  I really never felt connected to her, and her annoyingly ever-present dog.  There is more telling about how great she is or her father is, and very little showing.  I think if there is a second book, it could really elevate this one, but as it stands, so little is resolved, explained, or emotional resonance, that I don’t know that the characters or book will leave a lasting impression.

FLAGS:

Some language and a kiss.  There is death, and disease, and battles and government lies.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m tempted to do this as a middle school book club selection, despite the one-dimensional characters, simply because it is clean and might introduce students to a genre they might not otherwise read.

Author’s website: https://www.londonshah.com/

 

We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

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We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

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A mature upper middle school/high school aged fantasy romance, written by a nikabi and filled with ancient Arab imagery and Arabic words.  Story-wise it read to me like a mashup of Hunger Games and Ember in the Ashes, and while the overall story is good, the first 60 pages of world building were utterly confusing to me.  I told myself I would read at least 100 pages and then decide if I wanted to continue, luckily before I hit 100 pages I found a glossary of terms, characters, and places online, and the story moved from world building to character development and I enjoyed the rest of the ride.

SYNOPSIS:

In a world that is slowly being taken over by the dark magic that is the Arz, a deadly forest that surrounds the country of Arawiya, one girl in one of the five Caliphates, Zafira, dares to venture into the darkness to hunt game and prevent her people from starving.  Unfortunately the Caliph of her state looks down upon women and this regular heroic act must be done with her impersonating a man and keeping her efforts as covert as possible.  Life for Zafira is hard as she not only juggles this masquerade, but her father has recently been killed, her mother is mentally absent, her best friend is getting married, the Arz is growing, and the people around her are starving.

In more or less alternating chapters we also learn of Nasir, the ‘Prince of Death’ who is an assassin for the Sultan who has also now taken over as Caliph of Sarasin.  Forced to kill innocent people by his heartless father, Nasir also is mourning the loss of his mother,  as he tries to earn his father’s approval and find some validation for his current life.

The two characters come together when an immortal witch summons Zafira to retrieve a magic book from a cursed island beyond the Arz and Naisr’s father sends him to intercept her.  The majority of the book takes place on the island of Sharr, an island that is not only a location, but a living consuming character, and involves a variety of other enchanted beings from the various states.  An immortal Safin, Benyamin, one of nine elites, Kafirah, and Altair, a general from Sarasin that weaves them altogether and complicates everything.   This group, the zumra, must work together to save Arawiya, while constantly evaluating how much they can trust one another, as well as themselves.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the detail and was pleasantly surprised with the pacing.  The chapters are short and kept the plot from dragging for 471 pages.  Having read it and enjoyed it, I don’t know that I can properly discuss it though.  There are things that I just accepted and moved on with without pondering over, because I don’t know if I understood it well enough to even ask the question aloud.  That being said, I feel like I got the story and I understood where the characters were coming from and I closed the book feeling satisfied and willing to read the next one in the series.  The characters grow and develop and they have a satisfying arc without being overly cliche or predictable.  I think Nasir grows much more than Zafira and knowing that the next book is more focused on him, intrigues me.  Altair is by far the most fascinating character and I hope to see more of him as well.

There is a map at the beginning of the book that I referenced A LOT, and truly I have no idea why the glossary and character list was not included in the book, as it is desperately needed. There are a lot of Arabic words and I would like to get an Arabic speaker’s perspective on how knowing what the terms meant affected the story comprehension. 

I like that Zafira has to find confidence in shedding her cloak and stepping in to herself, but I felt it told it more than it showed.  Some of the states are governed by women, the founders are women, that I didn’t feel her fear in hiding her gender.  Similarly, I wanted more information on who/what exactly the Lion of the Night was/is and where the affinities come from.  Perhaps minor points, but details that kept me from immersing myself in this fantastical land and kept me feeling like an outsider peering in and trying to connect with events just out of reach.

FLAGS:

There is a lot of killing, and some of it gruesome.  There is abuse and details of branding and a tongue being cut out.  There is alluding of sexual acts but nothing defined, random comments between characters and implications of girls in a room in the morning.  There is kissing and an intense makeout session that is used to achieve a battle goal, but it is detailed and the characters reflect on how it made them feel in terms of desire, longing, wanting, etc.  So, while it is there, it is there for a purpose other than titillation, that is why I think mature middle school could handle it.  There is a scene in a bar, but none of the main characters drink.  There is some language, albeit not in English.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I could do this with 6th graders in my middle school book club, but I will definitely suggest it for the high school one.  I think there are a lot of ways things can be interpreted and because it is a fantasy there is no right or wrong which would make the discussion fascinating.  The romance I think makes the book lean to being more female oriented, but I think there is enough action that boys will also enjoy it overall as well.

Book Website: https://www.wehunttheflame.com/

The book just came out, so I’m sure in the next few weeks and months there will be more tools, more interviews, and more details of what is to come in the series.

 

 

 

 

Nimrullah: The Quest for the Green Dagger by Aaron Spevack

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Nimrullah: The Quest for the Green Dagger by Aaron Spevack

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Oh this one was hard for me to finish.  It was the only thing I took to keep me entertained on a 7 hour plane ride in February as I was determined to read this, and even between the going and return flight, I couldn’t force myself to get through it.  Four months later out of sheer stubbornness I finished this 204 page book and I’m not better for it.  If it was your thing, I’m glad for you, but I didn’t get it, I don’t know what age group I’d even suggest it for, and for all the potential it could have had in being a fantasy series with religious overtones like Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis or some grand adventure with moral highlights, for me it was just a simple story made complex by huge religiously vague passages and too many dozens of characters.

SYNOPSIS:

The bare bones of the book is pretty straightforward.  Much like even Lord of the Rings or any basic video game, the main character has to do this, then do this, then do that to succeed and win and reach the end.  In this book it is a ten year old boy named Ahmad who crawls under the mimbar of his Massachusetts mosque and finds himself in a land of talking animals who need him to go on a quest to save their way of life.  His sister Amina also finds her way to this enchanted land and Nimrullah’s garden, but they have little interaction with each other or with Nimrullah, a tiger and head of the Dar al-Ashjar folk.  Along the way Ahmed meets beavers, and snakes and rabbits, and dragons, all with names and random tidbits of information flung in, but no real purpose or back story or attachment.  Ahmad is given a book by a turtle that will guide his internal journey, that quite often Ahmad doesn’t understand and the author doesn’t even share the text so the reader doesn’t understand, and when the author does share the text it is paragraphs and pages long, that what it means is baffling to me as an adult, let alone any elementary aged child.  The point of the journey is to get to a green dagger that is on an island in a crystal sea, but he isn’t going to an island to get it, he is going to a mountain and then a cave.  The villains are the Kadhibun that mine crystal and enslave the animals from Dar al-Ashjar in factories destroying the crystal sea, and thus the environment and animals’ way of life.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love what the author tried to do.  Even comparing it to C.S. Lewis’ work gave some hope that Muslim children would find a surface level adventure story to fall in love with, and be compelled to understand the symbolic undertones of religion, morality and faith.  However, it not just fell short, it never really gave itself a chance.  There is too much telling and not enough showing.  All the characters and animals and references to things are not explained and lose the reader, and even when I would go back I wouldn’t find concrete points to fall back on.  There are too many characters that are just name dropped and become more words to skim over.  Major battle scenes are never detailed, and the narrator resorts to saying, “it would be hard to explain.”  Characters are trusted, but no reason to trust or mistrust them is provided. Litany’s are to be recited, but aren’t shared. “Ahmed opened his book again, and started reading the commentary, which contained the litanies.  Their details cannot be mentioned here, as such a sword cannot be handed to anyone.” There is a litany of the mountain, litany of the cave and a litany of the crystal sea.  But, apparently the litany of the sea is the same as the cave one, huh? It really is a mess, I’m sad to say.  It builds up to something and then just lets it drop.  On top of that, and now I’m just ranting, there are no page numbers!  

The overall moral of Ahmad learning self contron and slaying his ego and trusting Allah and being patient is all there, but it is so hidden and muddled that I don’t think the average reader will find it inspiring or triumphant.  It is almost like the author tried to put a ton of Sufi knowledge into a children’s book, but forgot to simplify it for children.  Just having the framework of a ten year old boy surrounded by talking animals isn’t enough to deliver the message, the message itself has to be palatable for kids too.  And basic writing and story telling are critical as well.

FLAGS:

The book is clean

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use this book for a basic book club, I couldn’t even get my 9 year old son who reads over 300 pages a day to get past the first third.  If I am missing major Sufi tenants, which I definitely could be as I know very little about Sufism, and this book is a foil for much bigger and more critical concepts then perhaps someone with Sufi knowledge teaching children in a clever way, will find this book useful, unfortunately I’m not that person, so I think I’ll have to pass on suggesting the book to others.

Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan illustrated by Ben Hibon

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Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan illustrated by Ben Hibon

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This book is fun and enchanting, whether you read all 321 pages and fall in to the occasional illustrations and pour over the map, or listen to the audio and get swept away.  It is an AR 4.1, and the first in the three part series.  Told by the point of view of two characters, the book’s short chapters and high action speed are expertly crafted to keep suspense and interest high, while maintaining solid world building events and making the character’s history come alive.  There isn’t anything Islamic in the books, save some critical and cleverly named characters and ideas, but the author in interviews has said he is Muslim, and that is enough for me to share a book I thoroughly enjoyed on this blog!

SYNOPSIS:

Thorn is a fugitive kid, on the run from something left intentional vague and possibly the son of an outlaw.  Raised on the edge of Herne forest (earth), he is good with animals, feels comfortable in nature, has a soft heart for doing what is right, and isn’t afraid of hard work.  He finds himself being sold as a slave to the executioner of Gehenna, Tyburn, and is off to Castle Gloom where he will meet and befriend the new ruler of House Shadow (death/darkness), Lily.

Lillith Shadow’s parents and brother have been murdered and she is now the ruler of Gehenna.  She is also still a child and events around her require her to grow up fast.  To end hostilities with House Solar she is to wed Prince Gabriel, a pompous idiot, who she despises in principle and in person.  

When an attempt is made on Lily’s life, Thorn and an unexpected ally, K’leef a Prince from the Sultanate of Fire, must work together to figure out who is trying to kill Lily, possibly who killed her parents, where Thorn’s father is, who is raising an army of zombies, and now how to get out of this wedding without causing continued war.

The history of the six founding houses that make up this world, and their elemental magical rules and limitations as magic dies out with each passing generation, come together and a tale is told that contrasts easy everyday language in a mystical proper world of royalty and dukes, colored by the dark of death and necromancy and shadows, while somehow remaining light, and funny, and completely relatable as the kids come of age and learn who they are and what they are capable of doing and accomplishing.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book is clean and that it has both Thorn and Lily’s perspectives to move the story along and give insight into the characters.  I love the world building and how the history of each of the houses is so well thought out and clear.  

“The whole idea of House Shadow is based on the Middle-East. Lily’s dad’s name is Arabic for the devil. Her mother’s the great villainess of the Old Testament and Lily is Lilith, a Hebrew demoness. The view people have of House Shadow mimics the fear the West has of East, and specifically Islam. For that reason all of House Solar is named after archangels. . . Some houses were easier to establish than others. House Djinn was fire as djinns are (out of Arabic lore) beings of smokeless fire. Herne’s an ancient English forest deity, so again a pretty easy fix” (http://www.cybils.com/2017/03/interview-with-joshua-khan.html).

A big plot point is that Lily is magical, and it is against ancient laws, meaning all six houses agree, that women cannot practice magic.  The irony is great, in that even kids can pick up on the fact that the six brothers and founders of the magical houses acknowledge that the source of their magic comes from their mother, a woman, and the hypocrisy of it all is frustrating.  I love that three very different characters have to work together, and pick their battles, it really is a testament to the strength of friendships even with people so very different than yourself.

FLAGS:

Pretty clean, not recalling anything cringeworthy as we listened to it in the car (kids ages 3, 8, 9, 12).  The book is dark in that it takes place in Gehenna and there is talk of the undead and bringing the dead back to life and they really celebrate Halloween in their own dark way.  There is murder and death and assassinations, but it isn’t overly morbid or gory or violent.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think I’ve already 90% decided to start next years middle school book club off with this book.  It is fun and engaging and the discussions would connect this fantasy story to so much in the kid’s lives and greater world that I get giddy just thinking about how fun a discussion it will be.  Sadly the school year is wrapping up and I’ll have to wait until fall.  Here are some of my favorite interviews online with the author:

http://www.cybils.com/2017/03/interview-with-joshua-khan.html

https://www.greenhouseliterary.com/authors/joshua-khan/

Author’s Website: http://www.joshuakhan.com/

 

 

Peeper and the Peeping Boy by Ayesha Marfani illustrated by Aisha Aamir

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Peeper and the Peeping Boy by Ayesha Marfani illustrated by Aisha Aamir

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I see the author regularly posting positive feedback for this book and after feeling let down by the last book of hers that I read, that had a great premise, I tentatively reached for this one.  The book is meant for children in grades 2 through 5, but the writing seems a bit all over the place and some of the vocabulary is above that level. The book is 67 pages and reads like a rough draft that has so much potential to be fleshed out, enhanced, and cleaned up.

SYNOPSIS:

The book takes place in Pakistan and is told from the perspective of Akram, an 11-year-old boy and a Jinn who he names Peeper.  Akram is apparently funny looking and behaves old for his age.  Those around him find him too contemplative and off compared to his peers.  He seems to be an only child and his family is middle class, but they live in a really weird neighborhood and while they have a maid, they are really tight with food and money.  Akram has a passion for peeking in on old houses and imaging stories for the inhabitants. 

Peeper is a Jinn, a good one, who doesn’t like to see suffering of small children.  He sneaks on Akram and sees what praying is and what being a Muslim is.  When he says “no” to his tribe to help plan a party for shaytan, he is punished and made human.  And as a human he and Akram explore the six abandoned houses next to Akram’s house snooping, making assumptions, involving the police and ultimately saving the day.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the premise of a boy and a jinn learning about Islam and trying to help those around them who are suffering.  I like that the foundation of being Muslim is what shapes both boys perception of the world as they pray and use AllahuAkbar as a super word to protect themselves.  Unfortunately the author’s writing style is very befuddled and these lessons are not clear.  The tenses change through out as does the point of view, with sometimes it being the characters being in the story and sometimes them preaching to the reader.  There is a lot of repetition of ideas, often disconnected random ideas, and in such a short book it really stands out.  Similarly, everything is really vague, no characters other than the main two are named, numbers of people aren’t identified, “…came in with 10 to 15 people, (page 62).”  Everything is very fluid and not in a helpful way.  The verdict of Peeper getting expelled from his tribe should have been a major plot point, but it is so quick and anti-climatic, that it really makes no impact. In a fantasy story, world building is critical, and there is nothing understood about the world of the jinns.  It says they are evil and horrid, but Akram misses them and wants to go back, which makes no sense and their are no details to show why he would think some in his tribe are good and kind, so when at the end they take shahada, it is completely fuzzy and confusing how one concept links to another.  Even the point of the story is befuddling, sneaking is wrong, but their intentions were pure, they got all their assumptions wrong, so they get medals and get rewarded and are encouraged to sneak more, but with permission? So, ya, all over the place.  The happy ending is that the mom is suddenly praying and religious, but no explanation of what changed her is given, so it falls rather flat.

Aside from my own thoughts on the story, there are blatant contradictions that aren’t explained.  Peeper says he wish he knew Arabic, but he came from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran, so how does he know English, but not Arabic from Syria?  Peeper also says on page 28 he doesn’t understand fajr, but on page 23 he says he watched Akram pray all 5 daily prayers.  The whole premise of Akram and Peeper being drawn to each other is their nosy curiosity and their compassion for others, but the whole scene with how they let the maid take the fall for the missing food is so out of character, and then when Akram is rude to Peeper about what his parents would say if they saw him is very jarring to how the character has previously been presented.  Neither situation is really resolved either and I really am worried that the maid lost her job and Akram didn’t even try to fix it.  The author tells us they are nice, but shows us two examples when they are not, so it isn’t very convincing that they truly are nice until they try to help the neighbors.  The inhabitant in one of the abandoned bungalows they assume is poor and deliver biscuits to him, but they note that he has bars of gold in his cupboards, so obviously he isn’t poor.  It is noted that Peeper can deliver the mail secretly with no one knowing where they came from, yet the police know that Akram is the one that alerted them to everything going on in the six bungalows, another contradiction that isn’t explained.

Some of the vocabulary was also troublesome for me.  The glossary at the end of the story and before the activity coloring and word search pages, jinn is defined as ghost, but they aren’t dead human spirits, so I disagree with that.  At one point the book mentions “elders of Islam” which is vague and odd, as well.  There are poems at the beginning of each of the 21 chapters, that are very forced rhyme and use words I had to look up:  hoary, momento mori, atavistic, not saying that kid’s can’t handle hard words, but there are many passages that have words more middle school in nature and with unconnected concepts, context clues are rather non existent.

There are little illustrations scattered throughout, but they are inconsistent in style and the copy quality is a bit poor, so they are not really helpful.  Akram does not have a face drawn in, but the jinn does. 

FLAGS:

There is nothing alarming.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club book, and I wouldn’t stress having a copy on a library shelf as I don’t think a child would willingly read it and understand it.