Among the bustling markets of eighteenth century Cairo, the city’s outcasts eke out a living swindling rich Ottoman nobles and foreign invaders alike.
But alongside this new world the old stories linger. Tales of djinn and spirits. Of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert, full of enchantment, desire and riches. Where magic pours down every street, hanging in the air like dust.
Many wish their lives could be filled with such wonder, but not Nahri. She knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about them. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes…
Be careful what you wish for.
I still don’t know how I found out about this book – an ad banner on Books and Publishing? A recommendation on GoodReads? All I know is I saw it somewhere on the Internet and bought it from the Book Depository immediately. I’m so glad I did, in a year filled with some STELLAR books, this one stands out.
This book is a good example of what an exciting genre new adult fiction can be – dealing with more serious issues than young adult fiction, but not quite as mature themes as typical ‘adult’ fiction (which is a varied and wide-ranging genre, and hard to pin down). It is one of the few fantasies I’ve read that has taken from Muslim/Islamic traditions and that is set in Africa – Egypt, to be exact (yes, I know that Egypt is a transcontinental country, but it’s considered a regional power in Africa, don’t @ me). Early on in the story, there are mentions of Napoleon and French occupation, which would place this story somewhere between 1797 and 1801.
The human world – which is incredibly important to the story – seems to sit alongside the magical world, which is populated with different creatures whose abilities vary according to their element (fire, water, earth, or air). The magical beings are split into tribes, and the shafits – halfbloods – kind of get treated like the Rohingya refugees of Myanmar, or the Stolen Generation. They are treated horribly: they are arrested for crimes they didn’t commit, their children are taken away and sold into slavery, they live in poverty, and are denied access to medical treatment, food… the list goes on. Ultimately, this is a story about oppression and persecution, and it mirrors what we see in the real world around us.
The story is told from two perspectives, something I normally can’t stand… but this worked. Our heroine, Nahri, is about 20 (she can’t be sure), and makes a living as a street healer, con artist, and thief. While she is hired to cleanse and heal people at Zar ceremonies, where she also leads prayers to banish ifrits, she finds the idea of magic preposterous… until she accidentally summons a daeva. We also see the story from Ali’s perspective. He is the King’s second son, destined to live unmarried and celibate, lest there be too many heirs for the throne. He’s extremely religious and his personality is quite… rigid. I really loved watching the friendship between the two blossom, because both characters are so self-righteous and have to learn to compromise. There are some great characters in here, but nobody is painted as being all good or all bad – they are all shades of grey, and it serves as a reminder of how dangerous it can be to hero worship someone and believe that they are anything more than a person.
If you’re looking for more diversity in your fantasy, pick this book up! It is a powerful debut novel, and one of the greatest debuts I’ve ever read – wonderfully plotted, exceptional prose, strong characters, and representation! Please show publishers that stories about characters of colour are just as marketable, digestible, and wanted as stories about white characters. Show this book the love and hype it deserves, and add it to your TBR pile.
Recommended for: fans of N.K. Jemesin’s Dreamblood duology