Tag Archives: fantasy

Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds by Samira Ahmed

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Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds by Samira Ahmed

amira and hamza

Make sure you are sitting in a comfy spot when you crack open this middle grades fantasy adventure, because it hits the ground running from the very beginning and doesn’t let up over 368 pages.  The like-able and relatable brother sister duo snarkily banter and bicker about everything from cultural Indian (Desi) folklore, religious stories, Marvel, Lord of the Rings, He-Man, Arabic Sesame Street, Star Wars, hygiene, fears, potential science fair projects, and food, all while battling jinn, devs, peris, and reality as they work to save the worlds.  The book is chalked full of STEM concepts, cultural touchstone, Islamic footholds, pop culture, and fun, as one character remarks, it is the ultimate fan fiction. I regularly Googled people, references, and concepts, and ended up learning quite a bit.  And don’t fret if you ever get lost or confused, or something doesn’t make sense, you don’t have to worry that you missed something or that the author left a gap in the narrative, the book moves quick and Amira’s constant dialogue and commentary points out all the ridiculousness of what they are experiencing and the questions that she wishes she had time to ask, explore, and discover.  The author never loses control of the narrative, and keeps the world building on level without skimping on details and understanding.  I have not loved any of the author’s previous books in their entirety, I think this one, however, is her best one yet, and the switch to middle grades is a good fit.  

SYNOPSIS:

Twelve-year-old Amira and her 10-year-old brother Hamza are heading to the Shriner’s Madinah Temple in their hometown of Chicago to explore the exhibit of Ancient Astronomy artifacts, or as Hamza calls it “tools that belonged to dead Muslim Astrologers.”  Hosted by the Islamic Society of Ancient Astronomy corresponds with the eclipse viewing party of the incredibly rare super blood blue moon.  In typical Hamza fashion however, a Nerf gun is brought and things are touched.  When Amira is tasked with bringing her brother up to the roof to learn how to use the telescopes, the two scuffle over a small box with a tiny moon inside, a series of snatching and tussling between the siblings cause the Box of the Moon to break, or rather start working.  As day turns to night, the moon seems to be breaking a part, and everyone in the world is suspended in sleep except for Amira and Hamza, and an entire jinn army is heading their way.

When jinn leaders Abdul Rahman and Maqbool reach the children they must convince them that they are not there to harm them, but rather to recruit them as the chosen ones to save the worlds: Qaf and Earth and the barrier, the moon, that keeps the realms separate from destruction at the hands of Ifrit.  The confusion over there being two of them creeps up, but is squashed as Suleiman the Wise left tests to prove that the chosen one is properly equipped to battle Iftrit as it has been prophesized.  The children must work together to prove themselves they must then actually seek out and defeat Ifrit.  As tests and challenges arise, it becomes clear (pun intended) that the two are not the chosen ones, but with no option of turning back they must forge ahead none-the-less.

“What? We’re Indian, dude, we were basically born half doctor.”

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love Amira and Hamza’s banter.  The references are at times laugh out loud funny.  Similarly, I was impressed by all the historical and STEM concepts intertwined in the story, there is even a tiny bit about mental health.  I learned about parts of the moon, historical figures, folklore, and more.  The characters are Muslim, Amira wears Ayatul Kursi around her neck and they talk of Sunday school.  The book isn’t religious though, in they aren’t saying Bismillah before they embark on things, or supplicating when in danger, but they greet different beings with peace, and the framing is clearly from an Islamic paradigm.  I think the high speed pacing works for most of the book, and somehow you still get to know and connect with the characters, but at times a slight pause to clarify a point would have been nice.  I would have liked to have the kids proving they were the chosen ones a bit more articulate and dramatic before hand rather than in retrospect.  I feel like the jinn transportation of cauldrons could have used a bit of backstory as well.  And a little fleshing out of the scroll, the government structure and communication methods of Qaf, would have helped some of the transitions between the action.  I read a digital ARC and it had a page reserved for a map, and I think when the physical book comes out that will be really helpful, as I didn’t quite fully understand the 18 realms and their locations  in comparison to the locations the children encounter.  

FLAGS:

There is magic and magical beings.  It mentions Amira and Hamza celebrating Halloween. Death and fighting.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this would be a great audio book to listen to with the family or a read aloud in a middle grades classroom.  It is too young for middle school readers to not find it slightly predictable, but if you had it on a classroom or home shelf I am sure it would be picked up, read, enjoyed by middle grades and middle schoolers alike.  It reads much like the Rick Riordan Presents series and I hope that there are more books featuring Amira and Hamza in the future.

 

A Pocketful of Stars by Aisha Bushby

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A Pocketful of Stars by Aisha Bushby

This middle grades magic realism novel draws you in and pulls on your heartstrings pausing only to offer pointed commentary on friendship, self-awareness, and self acceptance.  Oh sure there were parts that seemed a bit repetitive and parts I had to read again because the continuity was just off enough to have me confused, but the book has power, and especially for a debut novel I was blown away.  Well, actually I was in tears, and thats a pretty strong emotion to be felt in 246 pages, so be impressed.  I don’t know if the author identifies as Muslim, she was born in Bahrain and has lived in Kuwait amongst other places.  The main character, Safiya,  experiences her mother’s memories in Kuwait where Eid and the Athan are briefly mentioned and a few characters wear scarves.  There are culture rich Arabic names, but no religion is mentioned outright.  Saff has Christmas money, eats pepperoni, a side character has a boyfriend and they kiss, and there is just a touch of magic to tie it all together.

SYNOPSIS:
Safiya’s parents have been divorced for a few years, and when she chose to live with her dad, her Saturdays became one-on-one time with her mom.  Her mom, Aminah, is a lawyer from Kuwait who can chat with anyone and everyone about anything and everything.  The complete opposite of video game loving Saff who struggles to find her voice, and has nothing in common with her articulate, headstrong, independent, theater loving mother.  The two rarely get along and after a particularly intense fight, Safiya decides to not spend Saturday with her mom, but rather head out with her best friend Elle and new year eight friends at the mall.  When her dad tells her to come home asap, she knows something is up, but could never have imagined how life altering the days events are about to become.

Aminah is in a coma, and Safiya is full of regret and fear.  As she sits next to her mother’s hospital bed and drinks in her perfume, she is drifted to a far away land filled with a crumbling house and a magic like quality.  Approaching this oddity like her favorite video game, she explores her mother’s memories, and finds a girl not so different from herself.  As reality and magic merge in young Saff, she begins to sort through her feelings toward her mother and come to peace with what she has to do and endure and overcome.

In the process of handling her life-changing home situation, Saff, also finds the strength to call out cruel acts from classmates, find her voice, and cut out toxic friendships while cultivating supportive ones.  The journey on both fronts will have readers cheering for Saff while wiping away tears.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the quick pace and rawness of the characters.  Grandma, mom, and Safiya all say and do things they regret while hot and angry and have to learn the consequences and humbling that needs to occur to fix what their words have broken.  No character is completely good, nor completely bad, and in a middle grade book that is powerful. Each one has relatable qualities that really make the book memorable.  

Safiya has to really work out what is going on with her best friend, Elle, and what she is willing to accept and what lines she is not willing to cross.  The character’s maturity is inspiring, and I love it.  She doesn’t fancy boys (yet), and doesn’t see liking boys a sign of maturity.  She doesn’t want it forced on her, and she doesn’t want to give up things that she enjoys just to “fit in.” The fact that she can articulate how Elle is a chameleon blending in to her surroundings where she is just a plain old lizard is wonderful.

I enjoy the magical trips to Kuwait.  They don’t show much of the culture, but what is revealed is lovingly conveyed.  I like that it did acknowledge that Aisha knows Arabic, but struggles a bit to read it.  I would have loved more Arabic words sprinkled in, but at least it accounted for the linguistic abilities as it jumped between countries.  The book is set in England, so some of the concepts or phrases might need a bit of explanation for younger American readers.

I wanted more information about the backstories just beneath the main story line.  How did Safiya’s parents meet? Was the divorce amicable? Did her dad have any family around? How did Aminah leave for England at such a young age alone? How come Saff never visited Kuwait? How come Saff didn’t know about Aminah’s friends? How did the friends take Aminah leaving? Why didn’t they just email her the invitation? Why did they still have it? How did the girls meet in the middle of the night? I know that the book is middle grades, but just a bit more would have helped some of the holes feel shallower, and the overall story details more polished.

FLAGS:

Teasing, death, boyfriend, kissing, illness, verbal fighting. Nothing middle graders can’t handle, although the mom is kind of terrible to Aminah at the beginning.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this would be an awesome fourth or fifth grade book to read and discuss. I don’t do a book club for that age, nor do I have children in that age group at the moment, but I am planning to suggest it to teacher friends I know.  The book would appeal to boys and girls, but I think girls especially those going through friend dramas and girls butting heads with their moms will really benefit from this quick memorable read.

 

The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad

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The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad

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At times this 352 mature YA book was really hard to read for a variety of reasons: the subject matter, the writing style, the pacing of the story, and the numerous characters and inconsistencies.  At other times, the book was descriptive, and ethereal and hard to put down.  It took me over a month to finish the book because it really is all over the place and a lot of internal force and motivation was required to get through it, yet for all its flaws, I find my thoughts drifting back to it often.  The book contains a lot of violence against women, as that is the thread that brings this feminist group together.  There are hetero, lgbtq+, trans, and nonbinary individuals and relationships in the book, but they are not explicit, the rape, assault, suicide, prostitution, child trafficking and murder are more detailed.  The book takes place all over the world, and often mentions the athan being called or a mosque being passed.  Many characters have “Islamic” names, but there is no religion specifically practiced in this hijabi authored women powered tale.

SYNOPSIS:

The premise of the book is simple and straightforward.  A girl, the daughter of a prostitute, is betrayed by her mother when she is sent to a man.  As she runs through the city to escape, she crosses paths with a young boy who tosses her a box that contains stars.  A star embeds itself in her palm and allows her to enter a place called the “Between.”  The Between is a magical corridor made of magic that contains doors that lead to locations all over the world.  Once she enters she stops aging and is now made of magic.  She has the power to scream which can destroy other middle worlders and she can go invisible when around normal humans.  She travels the world finding other girls betrayed by those who had been entrusted to protect them, and offers them a star and a place in the Wild Ones.  This has been going on for centuries.  When the boy with the star eyes is in danger, he is reunited with the girl and her gang, and they pledge to protect him.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The concept of the book is pretty good, but the plot for more than half of the book it seems focuses on the girls constantly arriving in a new location, exchanging diamonds for local currency, finding food, and getting settled in, before doing it all over again.  It is repetitive and pointless.  Sure it is nice to read about exotic locations and savor local foods, but these girls live forever essentially and we learn so little about them or what it is they do.  Toward the middle of the book you start to see them helping other girls, but this should have been made clear much earlier on, I’m sure many people stopped reading before they saw how part of each girls’ healing involved helping others.  It is not developed or shown, which I think other than the two encounters detailed would have created some connection between the characters and the reader.

The cause of most of the confusion is that there are 11 Wild Ones, and you never really get to know any of them, the point of view switches between Paheli, and unknown speaker, and it has pages of prose from other Wild Ones that are neither explanatory of their life before or in relation to what they are currently experiencing. The fourth wall is broken periodically, but inconsistently.  So often, I just had no idea what was going on.

At times the characters speak like they are the teens that they are when they entered the Between, really noticeably and painfully, but they are decades old at the youngest, and centuries old for some of them.  Also, Taraana is presented as a young small boy that needs coddling a lot, although he too is centuries old, but then as the girls start protecting him, he suddenly is this incredibly handsome man in love with Paheli.  I get that their physical ages are suspended, so a relationship really might be possible and not creepy, but Taraana seemed to change, and it wasn’t explained.

The world building overall is weak, which is a shame, because it isn’t disjointed from the real world, it is just a slight addition to what the reader already knows.  If the Between is just hallways how is there a library? Can you live in the Between? Can all middle worlders access it? If so why aren’t the corridors crowded?

The pain of the girls, their rage, their ability to deal with their traumas in their own way and time, is very empowering.  I wish the sisterhood was more mutual than blindly following Paheli, like lost little children.  These girls/women can decide what to partake it, and leave the group if they want, so they are strong and capable, they just don’t seem to get to show it as they bounce around from place to place to place eating and doing what they are told.

The book almost seems to have been written in sections and then dropped in to place.  Much of the character information comes too late to make the story resonate.  Sure part of it is intentional to clarify and create “aha” moments, but it creates really boring stagnant chapters, when these girls should be fierce and powerful, not lounging and mundane.

There were a few spelling errors and grammar gaps, but I read an advanced readers copy, so I’m hopeful they will be resolved.

FLAGS:

Prostitution, rape, assault, suicide, death, murder, child trafficking, torture, drowning, infanticide, girl/boy kissing, girl/boy and girl/girl flirting. Many of the online reviews make it seem more lgbtq+ than I felt it was.  There are two lesbian characters that flirt and imply that their relationship will move forward, but within the Wild Ones they aren’t all hooking up.  Paheli and Taraana kiss, but nothing more graphic.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think there is any way I could do this as a book club selection at an Islamic school, nor would I want to. The book has powerful commentary on the status and crimes against women the world over, and possibly older, say early 20 year olds, would benefit from reading and adding their voices to a dialogue regarding life experiences. But, the story line might be too simplistic for older readers to bond with, and the confusion and inconsistencies may not be worth the time needed to finish the book.

Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber

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Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber

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At 304 pages this middle grades fantasy OWN voice book attempts to weave together a granddaughters love for her Teta, with her adventures in a mythical world that only she can save.  In much the same way of Narnia, or Gregor the Overlander, or even Alice in Wonderland, the book takes a realistic character and pushes them, in this case Samara aka Sami, just beyond, into a world filled with mystery, adventure, and lessons.  The Lebanese flavor sprinkled in adds a little depth and uniqueness to the story, and aids a bit in the world building, but it isn’t a strong presence outside of ifrits and character’s names.  Teta is a Beduin that has a prayer rug and tarot cards and a painting of the Virgin Mary that she calls Fatima, and Sami’s deceased dad was American and the house has Christmas lights.  At one point the book remarks that Teta “likes to pick and choose her beliefs.”  The premise starts with Teta showing signs of dementia: speaking in a language no one but Sami can understand, and not eating and seeming present, the resolution as a result could give children the wrong idea about treatments for such real conditions, and adults might want to make sure their middle graders wont be triggered by the decline of a loved one.  The book is written well and holds reader’s interest, the world building is decent and the character’s relatable, I don’t know that it is overly memorable, but it is a fun light magical read with culture and family and friendship at its core that readers will enjoy.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami and her brother Tony, along with their attorney mom Alia and maternal grandmother, Serafina, have just moved to Florida from Ithaca, New York.  The children’s father was killed and the family has moved a few blocks away from his sister to start anew.  Sami is not settling in, and to make matters worse, Teta has stopped talking coherently, and Aunt Ivory and Alia are looking for a nursing home to place her in.  For some reason though, when it is just Sami and her grandma, she can communicate just fine, and Teta tells stories of her adventures with her flicker Ashrafieh in Silverworld.  Sami doesn’t necessarily believe the stories are true, but she gets the idea to use her Teta’s fairy stories to try and save her grandma, but when she finds her Teta’s spell book and peers into an old beloved mirror, Sami is taken to Silverworld and realizes that it is not just her grandmother’s future at risk.

In a world of flickers and shadows, Sami finds two balancers that taker her in and guide her: Dorsom and Natala.  The world is a reflection of the Actual world, but the Shadow Nixie is consuming the land and taking prisoners.  The balance is off, and Sami is convinced that this darkness is what is also harming Teta.  Between shadow spies and giant rotifers, magic and prophesied destinies, Sami must push her fear away and accept that she can be the one to set things right.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that Sami has to step in to her own and fight for what she wants, even when she is afraid.  I love the relationship she has with her Teta it is very warm and palpable.  I feel like the “saving Silverworld will save her Teta thread,” however, is lost in the middle of the book, it might be the catalyst and might have worked out that way in the end, but I don’t know that the middle makes the case that the two efforts are one and the same.  I appreciate that there are glimpses of Lebanon in the story with the athan in the background and spinning dervishes, but outside of Teta and a bit of the food, the cultural elements seemed a bit forced and deliberate instead of stemming from a natural flowing place.  A bit odd since it is an OWN voice novel, but maybe I was just wanting more. I would have liked more information about how Teta settled in America, learned English etc., or about her tattoos and Beduin upbringing. Another thing that seemed off to me was the close relationship of Dorsom and Sami at the end.  I hadn’t over nearly 300 pages realized that they were that much closer than Sami and Natala.  I even went back to see if I had missed something, but I couldn’t find that I had.  I wasn’t entirely sure why they were going to see Nixie either, I mean yes it was logical for they type of book it is, but I don’t know that Sami really had a plan for Silverworld or her Teta, she was just going to Nixie’s castle to get there.  There were also a few inconsistencies such as Sami wishing her and Tony could go fishing or surfing, when the book has made it clear that Sami is afraid of the water, particularly the ocean.

FLAGS:

There is magic, killing, death. There is talk of goddesses, there is a female character, a shadow, that has two flicker husbands and children with them both.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think this would appeal to middle school readers, it is a solid middle grade book.  I do think fourth and fifth grade shelves would benefit from having this book available to be picked up and enjoyed.

The Magical Reality of Nadia by Bassem Youssef and Catherine R. Daly illustrated by Douglas Holgate

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The Magical Reality of Nadia by Bassem Youssef and Catherine R. Daly illustrated by Douglas Holgate

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This middle grades AR 4.5 OWN voice book by Muslim author/comedian/surgeon/activists Bassem Youssef mixes text, comic strips, and illustrations over 166 pages to tell a story about ancient Egypt, friendship, leadership, xenophobia, and life sprinkled with magic.  It has a lot of potential, and I liked the lessons that Egyptian-American Nadia learns, but it just seemed lacking to me.  It seems to be book one in a series, and in many ways it reads like an introduction.  The magical element is underdeveloped to me and often just annoying.  The micro aggressions,  racism, and character’s ages would suggest upper middle grader readers would gravitate toward the book, but the overall writing style and length would more appeal to younger readers.  This disconnect makes the book hard to pin down and hard to connect with.  I’ll definitely check out future books in the series even though no religion is mentioned, because this brown girl has a lot of potential to break down Arab-American stereotypes and empower readers to be proud of where they and their families are from as universal obstacles are worked through.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nadia has just come back from a summer vacation visiting family and friends in Egypt and can’t wait to get ice cream with her best friend Adam.  She picked up an Egyptian comic book for him and is anxious to see if he likes it.  Except the comic book seems to have disappeared and when she asks her many bobble heads to help her find it, her necklace with a hippo amulet starts to glow and an ancient Egyptian teacher, Titi, starts talking to her from the now found comic book pages.  As Nadia figures out how to control this ancient man who lives around her neck and in papers around her, she also has to deal with a new kid that acts like a bully and has the admiration of her best friend Adam.  Nadia loves facts and her and her friends call themselves the Nerd Patrol.  Nadia can be a bit bossy though, and while usually her friends let it go, she seems to be stepping on toes lately, especially with Adam.  When a competition at school is announced that will result in an exhibit at the Museum of American History, Nadia will have to use her “genie” to get help coming up with ideas for her display, coping with a bully, restoring friendships, and learning how to be a leader before her friendships fall apart.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Nadia is so proud of her culture and doesn’t feel like she has to pick one of her hyphens over another.  She brings Egyptian food for lunch, wears Egyptian inspired clothing, and is still very “American” as well.  Ancient Egyptian tidbits as well as modern day Egyptian information seeps through and weaves into the story smoothly.  The  diverse side characters are also a plus.  I think her trying to handle the bully in multiple ways makes the story resonate with other kids and gives readers something to ponder over.  I worry that most readers, however, won’t know who Elvis Presley is, or get if Titi is really helping or not and how it all comes together for him.  I am curious to see if he is a major character in future books, because I still have a lot of questions about his knowledge and understanding of the world after being trapped in an amulet for so long. Really, she could have learned so much from him, she just scratched the surface.

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FLAGS:

There is teasing and bullying and racism, subtle and overt.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is too short and superficial for a middle school book club selection, but it could be a fun read aloud in a 3rd or 4th grade class.

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