Category Archives: fantasy

A Darkness at the Door by Intisar Khanani

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A Darkness at the Door by Intisar Khanani

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Y’all I was devastated when Theft of Sunlight ended on a cliffhanger, but Alhumdulillah, this conclusion was well worth the wait.  My heart is at ease, even if I am trying to figure out how to get the “Blessing” so that I can forget I read the book, and enjoy it all over again for the “first” time.  I don’t normally review second books in the series, and this won’t be a typical review, but truly if you have not read Thorn or Theft, what are you waiting for, go get those books and start reading.  I don’t know a lot about the publication drama of this fantastic book, but I do know that it was not published in the USA by the same publisher as the first book in the duology, and the thought that we, the readers, could have stepped up the pre-sales and shown our love for the series, the author, and the characters weighs heavy on me.  Thankfully, the UK publisher kept the book and the author found a way to get Darkness to us in the US (it publishes later this summer), but truly we have the power to support good, quality stories, and we must actively show it so that they get published, rather than simply complain about what options are made available to us. This is the author’s website: http://booksbyintisar.com/ if you sign up for her newsletters you can get all the bookishly delicious info.  She is not asking me to promote her or her books, but I happily share and direct support to her, because her stories really are great, and from what I can fangirl find out about the author, so is she.

The book picks up where Theft leaves off, and manages to remind readers what might have been forgotten in the interim.  It had been over a year since I read book one and while I fumbled a little at the beginning, the author caught me up to speed and didn’t let me lose a beat in Rae’s latest and ongoing adventures.  It starts with Rae aboard a slavers ship with children bound for a horrible fate.  More than just her life is at stake, as the information she has recently discovered implicates palace officials, the Circle of Mages, an heir to the throne and so much corruption.  With the help of street thief Bren, Rae gets herself in and out of trouble quicker than most expect.  Her clubfoot, sharp brain, and genuine values, force anyone who underestimates Rae to find themselves scrambling to keep up.  She has grown to love her body and the strengths that it affords her, and in her actions and dedication to changing the world she becomes a formidable river Pirate Queen that you genuinely care for, cheer on, and hope gets a happy ending.

Yes, if you have read Theft and are wondering why I didn’t mention Princess Alyrra, Red Hawk, the Cormorant, Niya, Stonemare, Artemian, and everyone else, fear not, they are all present, and get their story arcs, I just don’t want to risk a single spoiler.  If you’ve waited for this conclusion, you will find yourself desperately dreading the final pages, and wishing the story would never end.  The fantasy, action, characters, world building is all incredible and so hard to put down.  The author is Muslim, but there is no Islam present in the stories, although hints of desi culture do seem to present in the Sweetening atleast. 

The book is YA, but I think 15 and up or so would be a good fit. Like the others in the series, it has magic, murder, killing, lying, thieving, alcohol, corruption, implications of sexual abuse, assault and threat of rape, but this book also has some language, talk of infertility, and some implied banter about marital relations. The romance is very halal and clean, but the violence is graphic as dealing with the implications of murder and slavery are grappled with and thus a thematic element of the story.

Thank you Netgalley UK for the arc, if the book looks interesting and fun for you, please preorder the book wherever you are.

Nura and the Immortal Palace by M.T. Khan

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Nura and the Immortal Palace by M.T. Khan

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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

SYNOPSIS:

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.

FLAGS:

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.

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

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Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

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It is hard to believe that this book is middle grade- the world building, the social and political commentary, the authenticity, the history, the humor, the writing quality, the richness, really makes me embarrassed that as a child I never gravitated towards books like this.  Everything I love about contemporary fiction seems to be done so well in the handful of fantasy books I’ve read of late, add in layers of adventure, imagination, and nuance, and I don’t know why I took so long to embrace this genre.  Not to say every MG fantasy is written this well, but why settle for only friendship, family, and identity issues when you can have all of it and dragons?  This 352 page book about a Chinese American Hui Muslim kid is action packed, culture rich, unapologetically Muslim, and a gripping good time.  While I think lower MG could handle and enjoy the book, there is nothing explicit, it does in passing mention eunuchs, concubines, and adult entertainment, along with the main character stating that he is not attracted to girls a few times and that he acts like a girl, but presents as a boy, thus making me think middle school aged might be a better fit.  If younger kids read it, they may or may not even pause or notice the aforementioned possible flags, I only highlight them, so that my readers are aware and can be prepared to explain and discuss if needed.  As an adult reading it, I can see clearly that Zach is gay, but I don’t know that most kids will catch it.  The author skillfully hints at it, but doesn’t make it the focus of the story, ultimately making me feel like if you want to see it you will, if you don’t, you probably won’t. Oh and the chapter titles, they are awesome!

SYNOPSIS:

Zachary Ying is twelve and while he isn’t comfortable in his Maine school, he manages.  He dumps the delicious Chinese food his mom makes every day so that no one teases him for the smell it carries.  He tries to impress the other members of the Mythrealm club, a vr video game, without rocking the boat, and he loves his single mom who works hard since his father was killed in China advocating for the rights of Uyghurs.  He knows little about Chinese history, the language, or myths, but that all starts to change when his VR gaming headset becomes the host for the spirit of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. 

His mom becomes the target of demons and when her soul is taken, Zachary is off to China to secure the barrier that divides the worlds and keeps the spirits at bay.  To do that though he is going to need to learn Chinese history, the power of artifacts, and the role of myths in keeping stories alive.  With two friends, also possessed by past emperors, joining him, the adventure is non stop.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Ramadan is mentioned on the very first page, that Zach’s mom wears hijab, that he only eats halal, and that details about life in China for Muslims is shared.  It isn’t the main part of the story, but it adds such a powerful layer, that I found myself looking up Hui Muslims and trying to rectify how little I know about Islam in China.  

The social commentary about which individuals from history are remembered and why some are celebrated and others vilified was so impressive to see in a MG fantasy book.  It doesn’t ask you to agree with the narrative, nor does it preach anything, it just presents it in all its beautiful shades of gray glory albeit often shrouded in humor.  I truly feel that most MG authors talk down to their readers, if these themes can be so strongly presented and consumed, what superficial fluff did I waste my time reading as a preteen?  Thankfully I’m an adult that loves juvenile fiction, so there is still hope for me yet.

FLAGS:

Magic, mythical gods, fighting, violence, lying, deceit, killing, crushes, same sex attraction, concubines are mentioned as are eunuchs, but nothing more is said about them.  Affairs and mistresses in context to myths and past emperors are mentioned.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if I could teach this.  Once you sense that he is gay it is hard to unsee, and in an Islamic school, that would be problematic.  I will have my own kids read the book, I don’t think there would be any concerns for me there.  A few weeks ago concubines were mentioned in a khutbah, so I’ve already had to explain that to one of my kids. 

PRE-ORDER BEFORE MAY 10, 2022 or PURCHASE AFTER HERE

The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

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The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

I was a little nervous to read an adult fantasy book with jinns, both in terms of length and knowing I would undoubtedly compare it to the Daevabad trilogy, but I got an ARC and dove in.  I was put off by the use of gods, and that there was no Islam present at all.  I’m not sure if the author identifies as Muslim, or what her background is, so I told myself I’d read at least 25% and then state I didn’t finish it because I primarily review juvenile fiction with Islamic content or by Muslim authors.  Well, lets suffice it to say that arbitrary percentage came and went and I had no intention of putting the book down.  So why am I featuring it? Simple, it is clean and I liked it.  Aside from the plural little g gods, the book is Arab culture rich as a retelling of the Arabian Nights, according to @muslimmommyblog the Arabic is accurate, the story is engaging, and really my only question is, why isn’t it YA?  I have a handful of reasons why I focus on children and teen lit, but one very strong one is that the books are “cleaner” in theory.  Lately though, it has been hard finding YA that followers of my reviews can confidently share with teen readers.  I think this one, although it isn’t a religious mirror, the salaams, culture, Arabic, and storyline, tinge the framing and make it a fun “safe” read to suggest to our kids.  At 480 pages, it probably is best for ages 15 and up, and it ends on a cliff hanger, so I’m not sure what the next book might introduce, just be aware this review is for this book alone.

SYNOPSIS:

Layla aka Loulie aka The Midnight Merchant hunts and sells magic jinn relics that she locates with the help of her jinn bodyguard Qadir.  After her tribe was slaughtered by a mysterious army, and she the only survivor, Qadir and her have been a team.  When her skills align with the needs of a powerful sultan she is forced to go on a journey with his son, the prince and one of his 40 thieves, to find a magic lamp that will lead her to answers about her past, offer her chances of revenge, test her abilities, plague her with loss, and fill the pages with adventure.  Stories of the One Thousand and One Nights are weaved in through oral storytelling, world building is built and explored through the characters’ understanding their world and the jinn, and the non stop action keeps the story moving forward with minimal dialogue and a lot of high energy showing.  Clearly if I say too much, the excitement will be lost, and I don’t want to spoil the characters’ arcs, their foibles, their illusions, and the climax- seeing as it is a linear story and if the motivation to move forward is lost, the book will lose its charm.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book keeps pace pretty well, a lot of the spoilers are not dragged out and I appreciate that they are not used to dangle the reader’s interest.  The story has depth, the characters are fleshed out, and the truth and illusion reveals are done without insulting the reader.  I’m still undecided about the (SPOILER) comic book quality of death for the main characters, but it keeps it interesting, so for now at least, I’ll play along.

There aren’t a lot of characters, but there are a lot of names for each character and at times in the thick of fast paced action sequences, I did get a little confused as to what was happening to whom and who was saying what.

I don’t truly understand why the divinity is plural or why they say salaam, but nothing else “Islamic” is remotely present save the concept of jinn.  I suppose though for all the fantasy books that use Islamic terms and imagery and then present them horribly, I should be glad that this one really doesn’t conflate the two, but an athan in the background or a few inshaAllahs, sigh I suppose a girl can dream.

FLAGS:

Language, violence, murder, killing, deceit, minor seduction, betrayal.  Very clean not just for an adult fantasy, clean for most any YA or Teen book.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

It would be a bit of a pivot for me to feature this book as a book club selection because there is plural deities and NO Islam, but it is very tempting to suggest it to the high school advisor.  The book comes out May 17, 2022, you can preorder it which helps show support, or order after it releases on Amazon.

The Button Box by Bridget Hodder & Fawzia Gilani-Williams

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The Button Box by Bridget Hodder & Fawzia Gilani-Williams

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This 152 page book reads like a historical fiction interfaith Magic Treehouse for middle grades tale, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I learned about Sephardic Jews, the language of Ladino, Prince Abdur Rahman, and a tiny bit about the Abbasids overthrowing the Ummayads.  I love that it starts with a map and ends with sources, facts about what information is real in the book and what is fiction, and a bit about Muslims and Jews and how to be an ally if you witness prejudice.  The book is co-authored, and in many ways the Jewish narrative does take the majority of the focus, but the Islamic phrases sprinkled in, the Islam practiced by a major character, and the setting, allow for both religions to shine and combine to make a compelling magical time traveling story for third graders (and their parents) and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Cousins Ava and Nadeem are in fifth grade and spend their afternoons afterschool with their Granny Buena.  Granny and Ava are Jewish and Nadeem is Muslim, though they believe differently, they always seem to find more that is the same, and respect is always given.  When they face bullying at school Granny Buena pulls out a crystal box full of buttons and tells the children, and the cat Sheba a tale about their ancestor Ester ibn Evram.  When she stops the story short, the two kids exam the button closer and find themselves back in time tasked with saving Prince Abdur Rahman and getting him from Africa to Spain.  They aren’t sure if that will be enough to get them back to their own time though, but they don’t have time to overthink it because if they fail, the Golden Age of Islam won’t happen, peace won’t come to Muslims, Jews, and Christians in the region, and their Jewish ancestors may face the backlash of helping the Muslim escape.  Along the way, they learn about their own family traditions, beliefs, and gain wisdom to handle their bullying problem at school.

WHY I LIIKE IT:

I love that I learned so much, and from what I could Google and ask about from those more knowledgeable, the facts about the time period and cultures all seem to check out.  Only one passage comparing Jewish belief and the text of the Quran is phrased oddly in my opinion, the rest of the Islamic sprinkling is well done.  There are numerous bismillahs, mashaAllahs, stopping for salat, quoting of the Quran and more.  The narrative is primarily Jewish, but the setting Islamic with athans being called and Salams being given.  The book does have a lot of Jewish detail, but I don’t think it was preachy, and the further uniqueness of Ladino words and culture I think would appeal to all readers no matter how familiar or unfamiliar they are with the two religions.

There are some questions that as an adult reader I wanted to know more about: how Nadeem and his mom are practicing Muslims in a strong Jewish family, how making sure history happened as it happened the first time sent the two kids back…then why were they sent there at all, is there going to be more button adventures, were their two cats or was it the same cat?   Honestly, a lot of the more obvious fantasy plot holes were accounted for and done quickly and simply: how their clothes changed but the button remained, how they could speak the language, how confused their aunt would be when her real niece and nephew arrived, etc.. The writing quality kept it all clear for the reader, and did so without the pacing of the story suffering.

FLAGS:

Near death experience, magic, mention of killing, fear, deception, bullying, fighting, physical altercation, misogynistic assumptions.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a great story to share if I return to the classroom. The history, the religions, the storytelling would provide so much to connect to and learn about.  As a book club selection though, it would be too young for our middle school readers and ultimately too short.  I would consider it for a read a loud with fourth and fifth grade.

To Purchase: Here is the Amazon link: https://amzn.to/3D9LyxI

Compass, Vol. 1: The Cauldron of Eternal Life by Robert MacKenzie & Dave Walker illustrated by Justin Greenwood 

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Compass, Vol. 1: The Cauldron of Eternal Life by Robert MacKenzie & Dave Walker illustrated by Justin Greenwood 

compasscoverDo you ever find yourself in the middle of an amazing historical fiction fantasy adventure graphic novel, reading as fast as you can to find out what happens next, while simultaneously having absolutely no clue what is going on? Yeah, I am was confused often in this upper YA/Teen (16+) 136 page book set in Europe during the Islamic Golden Age and starring a female from the renown House of Wisdom.  I’m fairly positive it is my own limitations that made the book confusing, but for those wiser and more versed in graphic novels, I would recommend this book.  It has action, adventure, science, history, philosophy, a strong Muslim character, friendship, wisdom, ingenuity, a bibliography, Mongols, Druids, and a dragon.

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SYNOPSIS:
Shahidah El-Amin is a Compass from the House of Wisdom, she is not a thief, she seeks knowledge which means that she is incredibly educated, fierce, and scrappy: part Indiana Jones, part Tomb Raider perhaps.  She is a hijab wearing, dua invoking, Qur’an quoting, don’t give me alcohol even as you are about to kill me, strong confident Muslim. 

The book opens with her finding an artifact and being betrayed by a fellow scholar and friend, Ling Hua, a Chinese scholar.  The two race to Wales to get to the possibly rumored Calderon of Eternal Life for different reasons and using different methods.  Along the way Shahidah shows her skills in surviving, understanding what her priorities are, and learning about friendship.  She will battle Master Hua, the Khan, a dragon, a bear, the Druids, a leper just to name a few as the fantasy world is developed and built up with historical accuracies thrown in.

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WHY I LIKED IT:

I love that the lead is a fierce female Abbasid Muslim from Baghdad and that there are a variety of religions and cultures mentioned and depicted.  It refers to Shahidah as an Arab witch by the enemy and calls Muslims “Mohammedans” which takes a bit of getting used to and I never got comfortable with.  I love the inclusion of ayats in transliterated text of the Arabic, and the concept is wonderful.  I got lost though in some of the world building and plot.  I think the action and illustrations are clear, but the text needed a little clarity in my opinion.  Again, I acknowledge my lack of familiarity with the concepts and format of the book.

I loved the bibliography and the notes included at the beginning and end.  I actually would have liked more information on the House of Wisdom and as always, a map.

FLAGS:

The concept and references make it for more mature readers.  There is also violence, a mention to love making, and depicted death, gore, killing, etc..

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Even though it is for older readers, I think it would be great on a library shelf for middle grades and up.  It probably isn’t for everyone, and many wouldn’t be tempted by it even, but the few kids that like this kind of content, will absolutely love the book.

Count by Ibrahim Moustafa with Brad Simpson and Hassan Otsmane-Elhadu

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Count by Ibrahim Moustafa with Brad Simpson and Hassan Otsmane-Elhadu

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This graphic novel retelling of the classic, Count of Monte Cristo, is for middle school readers and up and is by a Muslim author and illustrator. There is nothing Islamic or cultural in the text of this 136 page sci-fi twist, and there is some kissing, a whole lot of killing, brutality and violence, but I think the swashbuckling tale will appeal to early teens and adults who enjoy fast paced reads whether they have read the original tale or not.

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SYNOPSIS:

Commoner Redxan Samud is elevated to Captain and marries his beloved, the first few pages of happiness, however, quickly disintegrate as he is framed and wrongfully imprisoned by the jealous powers that be.  Life in the hovering prison are barbaric, but the meeting of Aseyr, provides him with a plan and means to move forward.  First he will have to survive the death battles in the prison, escape the inescapable fortress, before he can locate the Isle of Sorrow, take control of ARU and extract his revenge.  Oh, but his revenge is strong, so very, very strong.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I was admittedly hesitant to give the book a try, but when writer Shireen Hakim sent it to me, and my kids saw it, I thought I should read it first before letting them dive in.  I read it in one sitting, the story is engaging and clear.  I never was confused with who was who and why something was happening.  At times though it seemed too quick and that details were glossed over, or impact was minimized because major plot points were not given enough time to be felt.  I would have liked some answers provided of basic logistics and of character’s getting from one place to another, and how plans came to fruition shared in the story.  Additionally, some fleshing out of situations to ground the story a bit and make the revenge and extraction of revenge more cathartic, would have elevated the book and made it a popular choice in my house to be reread again and again.

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FLAGS:

Death, violence, murder, rage, kissing, torture, plotting, deceit.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
Not a contender for a book club read, but I would shelve it in a middle school classroom and in the school library for graphic novel and comic book enthusiasts as well as for high school students who might be familiar with the classic it references.

This Woven Kingdom by Tahereh Mafi

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This Woven Kingdom by Tahereh Mafi

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At 512 pages this teen/YA fantasy book immerses you in the lives of two characters pitted against one another that are inevitably, drawn to each other.  The world building is slow, as it seems to spend more time character building and shaping the magical Jinn filled world around the characters, through their eyes, and their interactions, than simply building a world, and then dropping characters in it.  It never seems to drag, but the rising action is not concluded, it in fact ends on a cliff hanger raising the expectation for the next book in the series to take the story toward more action, emotion, and twists.  I absolutely love and applaud the author’s note that articulates and clarifies that this book is not religious in nature and that threads of Islam and Persian culture are just reference points for this completely fictionalized tale.  There is a passionate kiss, and violence, but this book is remarkably clean and an enjoyable read for ages 14 and up.

SYNOPSIS:

The story opens with Alizeh sitting by the fire sewing.  She is freezing, she is always freezing, she is a Jinn, but her veins are ice.  Completely alone, she is working as a maid, but as she is on probation, she lodges in a tiny closet away from the other service members, and is deathly afraid of the dark.  Her loving parents raised her and nourished her, she is educated and strong, but since their deaths she has been on the run, trying simply to survive in a world where Clays forbid Jinn from using their magic.  Alizeh is no ordinary Jinn though, the earth has chosen her to be the future Queen, her ever-changing eyes prove it, but for now, she has no kingdom, no family, no friends, no hope to lead.  Only cryptic riddles given to her by Iblees that she dreads and fears, but warn her of impending dangers.

Kamran is the second storyline that builds the world of Ardunia.  As the crown prince, and future king, he has returned from touring the country and has had his eyes opened to the forces threatening the empire, the inevitable war that is looming, and the shortage of resources that threaten them all.  He is irritable and brooding and acting out of character when he intervenes in an altercation in the streets between a servant girl and a young boy.  This sets off a series of events that will bring Alizeh and Kamran into direct conflict as their worlds intertwine and their passions build.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the clarification at the beginning, stating that this is not Islamic and that religious and cultural inspiration was just that, inspiration. It allowed me to get comfortable and enjoy the tale for what it is.  I wasn’t worried about checking things, or worrying about religious impressions and accuracy, it was so freeing, thank you.  I really hope that there is a map in the final physical copy, because I just really like maps.  I liked the Persian numbers and script on the chapters and the references make the book that much richer and fleshed out.

I am admittedly fairly new to fantasy, so I enjoyed the slower pace and character building.  I found it enveloping and smooth, there were small conflicts, but the subtle world building through understanding the characters, and their perspectives, was a nice framing for a story that very easily could have dragged, but in reality flew by.  The only point that I found unrefined, was how much Alizeh knew of her past and the impact it had on her current situation.  There seemed to be a bit of a disconnect in teasing that thread.  The reader knows who she is, so I’m not sure why she seems to not know, and then proves that she does, there is no subtlety in that regard.  And the only character, that seemed underdeveloped was that of Hazan, his banter with the Kamran grated on my nerves, and I didn’t understand the abruptness of his and Alizeh’s relationship, it seemed forced.  Nearly everything else in the book was very organic and gently referenced and established very deliberately, but it almost seemed like I missed a chapter or two, when all of a sudden Hazan emerges as being such a main character in Alizeh’s life.  Undoubtedly it was a surprise for the reader, but some nuance in the revelation through Alizeh’s eyes, would have assisted in the continuity of the character and tone of the book.

FLAGS:
A kiss, and attraction, talk of illegitimate children.  There is killing and violence, attempted assault: physical and sexual, not detailed, but referenced as a fear as she walks alone at night.  There is darkness and talk of the devil, deceit, lying, plotting.  Nothing an early teen could not handle.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would have to delay deciding if I could do this as a book club selection until I read the next book.  There is so much potential, that I truly hope that I can introduce the series to young readers to enjoy, get lost in, and discuss.

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

wild ones

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.