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.
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.
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.