This 272 page unapologetically Muslim MG tale takes on some heavy concepts: child labor, jinn, education, and gulab jamun- I mean greed. Through the eyes of feisty, determined, clever, and strong Nura, though, the trials of life and society are never without hope, a sense of adventure, and good intentions. The characters are likeable, the Islam wonderfully present and often centered, the social commentary remarkable, but the framing for me, made it a bit of a struggle to read at times. It is set up like Alice in Wonderland or even Silverworld, where the characters living in a real world stumble in to an alternate reality, and thus the world building occurs in real-time so to speak. The reader has no idea what is going on until it is happening, no clue what the rules and constraints of the fantasy world are until some detail is needed to help or hinder the protagonist, and personally I struggle with this wandering style of narrative. I have mentioned before that as a child I really never read fantasy, and I think this is why, I need the context to ground the story so that I might lose myself in the adventure at hand. If you are fine with this framing and at ease with Islamic jinn fantasy, then this book will be a lot of fun. If you find fantasy “shirk-y” do know that Ayat ul Kursi is used to save the day, but that there is a lot of imagination regarding the beings made of smokeless fire, a casino is present along with dancing, indentured labor, and the fear of death.
The book releases in July 2022, and as always pre-orders help show support for books, authors, and the OWN voice content that they entail, so if this book seems like a good fit for your 3rd/4th grade reader and up you can pre-order it here: https://amzn.to/3MVvxQo
Nura lives in the small industrial Pakistani city of Meerabagh. Her father has passed away and her family is too poor to send her to school, instead she must work so that her siblings might eat. Her mother works in a sweat factory and Nura in the mica mines. The illegal child labor and cruel owners provide less than ideal working conditions for the children forced to mine the sparkly mineral. Nura’s mom wants her to quit, Nura herself doesn’t enjoy the torment, but somehow she takes it on as a challenge to be the best miner in Meerabagh, pushing her self deeper into the fragile tunnels. With bestfriend Faisal always warning her about going too far, she decides to finally listen to her mother and quit the mines, but not after she makes one final effort to find the rumored “Demon’s Tongue” treasure. She digs too deep though, and the mines collapse, children are lost, Faisal among them. Determined to find her best friend, she plunges in to the fallen mines and finds herself on the pink waters outside the luxurious jinn hotel, the Sijj Palace.
Nura has always been warned about jinn, qareens and the tricks they play on humans, but when a life of luxury is dangled in front of her, Nura pushes her better judgement aside to enjoy a life she has always dreamed of. It isn’t just the food and clothes, but it is the respect and honor she is given as she wins a food eating contest, gambles in a casino, and gets decorated for a dance party. It all comes crashing down however, when in an attempt to impress the painted boy, she cuts off his horn. Status revoked, Nura is sent to the labor force, where she will remain for eternity, imprisoned and at the disposal of the hotel. What is more, after the three day festival of Eid al Adha, her memories of her life before coming to the jinn world will disappear. Nura is determined to escape, but nothing in the jinn world is easy, and for a 12 year old girl with fading memories, this might be more than she can endure.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that Nura is unapologetically Muslim. Even though she is poor, there is time spent on the pages detailing the feeling of Eid al Adha, the familial togetherness and community festiveness even if it all is meager, it still has value. I also really like the relationship between Nura and Faisal. They drive each other crazy and have nothing in common, but they never give up on each other. They act like siblings, tolerating each other’s annoying quirks, while never wavering on their concern and worry for one another. It is sweet and well fleshed out.
The threading of education was also done well. Nura finds the idea of school repulsive, but it grows and changes as the obstacle of being illiterate slows her down, and ultimately she changes her mind. The growth arc is subtle, but powerful, and Nura’s intellect, cleverness, and ingenuity is never dimmed as a result of her lack of formal schooling.
The characters, even the “bad” ones are given some depth and sympathetic qualities, and Nura has to recognize some of her own flaws and choices as she journeys through the book. Desi culture is present primarily in food and clothing, but it adds depth to the story and flavor to the experience.
The food eating competition, however, didn’t really impress me. I get that it was to flesh out the jinn world and show Nura’s smartness, but I thought the jinn in the water were eaten, only to have them reappearing, and the founding premise is that jinn are tricksters, so to have Nura tricking them seems to blur the lines of integrity. Also the bird was critical, and then never seen again, the scene just didn’t read as tightly edited or as clear as it should have in my opinion.
I didn’t love that a casino either, or that it was so central to the story. If it would have said something about gambling being haram and jinn being free to do what they want, like it did when discussing how Eid is celebrated by non practicing jinn, I might have not been as bothered, but it seems an odd setting nonetheless, for a middle grade book.
Gambling, child labor, indentured servitude, magic, fantasy, jinn, destruction, bombing, fire, death, fear.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I think this could work as a middle school book club read. It is a little below level and age, but there is a lot to discuss and connect with, that I think it would be a lot of fun. Our school is ok with fantasy reads, so for us it definitely deserves a place on the bookshelf in a classroom, school library, and possibly (depending on your views of fantasy) a home library.