Category Archives: fantasy

Rebel of Fire and Flight by Aneesa Marufu

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Rebel of Fire and Flight by Aneesa Marufu

rebel

I struggled with this 384 page young adult fantasy.  It skirts and plays with Islamic doctrine as the characters and plot points dance with fantasy and fiction; and because I never felt that the author was completely in control of the story and where it was going, I could never relax and be swept away.  The author identifies as Muslim and in the backmatter addresses how experiences with Islamophobia influenced her writing, yet I don’t know why jinn and hijab were in the book when fictionalized creatures and cultural dress would have sufficed.  Clearly the character on the cover is in hijab, the names of half the characters are Muslamic, the culture is very desi, the broad concepts of jinn, the ghaib, sihr, Prophet Sulaiman, call to prayer, are all Islamically rooted, but characters go to worship at temples, jinn and jinniya eat corpses and are described so often as looking like smoke.  There is no clear identifier that these characters are in fact Muslim, it is simply hinted at, which makes the fictional parts seem like extensions of religious doctrine and ultimately made me uncomfortable with much of the story.  It also makes me think readers will not know where the lines are, if my brain was muddled, I can’t imagine a  young teen reading it and keeping it clear.  There is a few rushed romantic scenes of kissing, there is a trans character who’s gender identity and born gender is a significant plot line in the story, and there is a lot of oppression, racism, death, abuse, misogyny and fear.  It is a dark read that metaphorically takes real societal concepts and sets them in shades of gray with the added use of fantasy. There are a lot of layers in the story, and while it wasn’t poorly written, there were definitely places it needed to be better.  I really didn’t like any of the characters, I didn’t understand their motives, their relationships, their drives, the commentary on occupiers and rebels was weak as was the push back on misogyny after the first few chapters.  I didn’t feel a love of hot air balloons or feel that the battle scenes accounted for many of the characters that would suddenly be missing from the scenes.  I think the dual perspectives kept the intensity of the climaxes at bay and halted the rising action.  Too many misses for me to recommend this standalone book, but if you’ve read it and can talk me through it, I’m willing to listen.

SYNOPSIS:

In a land where girls are running out of time to be arranged in marriage at 17 and transportation is done in hot air balloons, there are two groups of citizens: the darker Ghadaean’s are the rulers and the lighter skinned hāri are oppressed.  The book establishes this power dynamic early on in a quick synopsis: the hāri came from the Himala mountain range to trade to Ghadaea, but their greed and lust for power drove them to try and seize the land.  They failed, and now 90 years later the hāri are punished for the mistakes of their grandfathers (4%).  Both groups fear sihr and jinn.  Everyone is vegetarian because jinn are attracted to rotting corpses, animal and human, and thus anything dead is quickly burned.  When a radical hāri group, the Hāreef, is formed with a new leader, sihr and jinn are no longer enemies but tools to rebel against the racist oppression, and assist in the war to change the balance of power.  

Khadija is 16 and with her mother and younger brother deceased at the hands of some hāri, her older sister married and off in a balloon, her father is desperate to get her married.  Most females are not allowed to read, nor are they even allowed out of the house alone.  The fear of the jinn is weaponized to keep them in, and misogyny prevents from proving themselves.  While out meeting with a suitor, Khadija in a burst of desperation leaves her father and jumps in to an escaping balloon.  Khadija does not know how to fly a balloon, having never even ridden in one, but when it lands in different town she meets Jacob.

Jacob is hāri and the second of the dual perspectives telling the story, he is orphaned and is unique in that he is an apprentice of a glass blowing Ghadaean.  He meets Khadija and offers her food, and in the span of a few hours she saves him and he saves her and both seem to have a dead glass blower on their hands.  Add this to his growing rift with his best friend William, who has joined the Hāreef, and is now dead, and you have Khadija and Jacob escaping in a balloon, not trusting each other nor knowing who and what they support.

From here on the two’s friendship and motives wax and wane as they are drawn in to battle together, and against each other.  Neither are “good” or “bad” nor are their decisions always clear, but they will be forced none-the-less to figure out what they want and what they stand for as peri’s are tortured, nawab’s are killed, jinnya queens are called upon, wishes are granted and a group of hāri and Ghadeans known as the Wazeem offer a unified collective.  Unfortunately, change and power never come easy and when a dead son is brought back as an ifrit and an ancient princess in the jinn world is ready to battle, all the shades of gray that exist in politics, revolution, rebellions, families, hate, racism, gender identities, and control all come spilling out from balloon baskets and the ghaib. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

I honestly kept reading to see how the author was going to bring it to a conclusion and wrap up all the loose threads.  And while the book lagged at times, she definitely got it concluded.  Aside from the religious signaling, but never owning identity problems, I struggled with the writing too.  The hāri Jacob doesn’t read like a little brother, he and Khadija read the same age, and so his importance in the Hāreef seems an ill fit.  Plus he is very duplicitous and I get that that is part of the story, but I never liked him so it just got annoying how many second, third, fourth chances he got, and I mean, why would anyone care? 

Khadija seems like she is going to battle misogyny early on, I hate that marriage and arranged marriage is equated to oppression, but the not being allowed out and not being educated seems to fizzle in the middle and then come out a bit in the final scene.  I hoped it would have been commented on in every new city they arrived at.  The set up was there, but because it wasn’t, it made it seem more of a shortsightedness of her own father, and not a larger problem when strong women existed elsewhere.  This also reinforced a “brown Muslim” man stereotype that is never pushed back on.  

The racism, power struggle oppression is more consistent, but with the foundation that the hāri came and tried to take over nearly  90 years ago makes it hard to feel too bad for them.  They tried to occupy and now are enslaved.  Neither is ideal, but why didn’t they just go back? We aren’t talking more than one generation, it is the “crimes of their grandfathers,” they had a home, they were kicked out, they should leave.  Yes, I know they are human and racism is wrong, my point is a literary one, that the foundation should have been stronger, more detailed.

The love interest I also felt was lacking, Darian comes out of nowhere, they are in love, he gives her his heart so he is saved, I didn’t feel the tension, I didn’t get it, not at all.  It was forced and cheesy and I just know he kept getting hurt, they would kiss, and then he was back to getting hurt or possessed or something, had no personality what so ever.

The seal of Prophet Sulaiman and the hundreds of pieces of it didn’t sit right with me, nor the jinns being smoky and eating corpses.  I truly don’t understand why very real Islamic concepts were brought in and twisted.  Why not just create your own characters and say they were loosely inspired.  I felt like the religious rep and OWN voice kept one foot in the religious inspired world and one in the fantasy is fiction so I can do what I want, and it didn’t work for me.  I think it crossed in to being disrespectful, and had the author not identified herself as Muslim, I would have been furious as the book reads like an outsider who doesn’t get that jinn are real, Prophet Sulaiman was real, sihr is real, the ghaib is real.  It really needed some some clarification on where the story existed and where the religion or religious inspiration started and stopped.

The trans character is worth highlighting because it does touch into Islamic rulings regarding hijab, even though we don’t know if Anam or any of the characters are Muslim. Anam is born a male, but leaves her family of exorcists and is a leader of the Wazeem as a female. She presents as a female, but when she enters a room where numerous Wazeem women are changing many hide, draw their hijabs, make horrified gestures etc., it has to be explained to Khadija why this is.  It does not bother Khadija. Story wise it is a critical point because the Jinniya Queen Mardzma is the queen of female warriors and it is unknown if Anam would be seen as female or male. When Anam went from being an exorcist to the greatest human warrior present is beyond me, but there was a lot of assumptions you had to accept while reading.

FLAGS:

Death, erroneous religious rep, kissing, murder, killing, lying, torturing, threat of sexual assault, murder, coming back from the dead, oppression, racism, trans, misogyny, abuse, hetero relationships, stealing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would not shelve this book in an Islamic school library or classroom, nor would I use it as a book club selection.  Although if my local public library or some adult Muslims read it and were planning to discuss, I would join to hear their thoughts about it.  I would not be able to lead, but I would enjoy picking it apart with others.

The book releases shortly, just because it didn’t work for me, if you think it sounds like something you would like, you can preorder and purchase it HERE.

Spice Road by Maiya Ibrahim

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Spice Road by Maiya Ibrahim

spice

I have no idea if the author identifies as Muslim. I saw the 2023 YA book described as a Middle Eastern fantasy, characters with Arabic names,  djinn representation and possibly a hijab wearing protagonist on the cover, so I requested an advanced reader’s copy, squealed with delight when I got approved, and happily fell into the 464 page world of The Sahir and Kingdom of Alqibah.  Their is no Islam in the book, it is not a hijab, but I’m sharing it here, not just to let readers know it isn’t Islamic rep, but to let them know that for the genre it is pretty clean, and the story is an engaging easy read.  At times Imani is whiney and annoying, but she has a developed arc, and the book has a few slow patches, but nothing that lasted long enough to tempt me to give up on it.  I think 14 year olds and up can handle the three brief kisses, the sexual assault that is thwarted, the lusting glances, the killing, the potential addiction, and the commentary on colonizers and oppressors.  It is the first book in a series, so this review is only for this book and not an evaluation of the rest of the books that perhaps are not even written yet.

SYNOPSIS:

In Qalia, the Shields protect their community from monsters with the Spice entrusted to them, misra, that magically empowers affinities in them.  The top Shield, Imani, has an affinity for iron, and with the support of her powerful clan she exists in a world of privilege and opportunity.  When her powerful brother, Atheer, is assumed dead after stealing misra and suffering from magical obsession, the family’s reputation is not as pristine as it once was.  Imani’s younger sister, Amira, is also keeping secrets as she is caught stealing, skipping school, and refusing to follow family orders and country laws.  When the two girls find themselves following Atheer’s horse into the forbidden waste, they learn that their brother might not be dead and that there is more to their world than they ever were allowed to know.  With desperation to learn more about her brother’s location clouding her judgement, the Djinni Slayer, Imani, bonds with Qayn, a djinni who claims to not only know Atheer, but to have been his close friend.  Imani scrambles to know what to do, and seeks out answers and permission from Council, that results in her and three other’s heading off on a rescue mission to the Kingdom of Alqibah.  Everyone’s orders, however, are not the same, and first they must survive the desert, the monsters, and each other if they are to find Atheer.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love  that the world building is not at the expense of character development.  The single linear story line does mean that at times side characters are seemingly forgotten, but the focus of the world through Imani’s eyes allows the gaps to be overlooked as her concerns and priorities take center stage.  I love the emphasis on family, it is sibling love that is motivating the protagonist and closeness to an aunt that allows for privilege and opportunity. The romantic threads and tangents never overshadow the familial importance- it isn’t a forced obligation it is very warm and it is nice to see and feel the truth in the characters approach to family.  I love the Arabic names, foods, and while my electronic version did not have a map, the author has one on her Instagram page that suggests the physical book will have a map.

I love that the book discusses colonizers and oppressors.  It may be fiction and fantasy, but there are some very real themes included in fleshed out way that would allow for a lot of deeper discussion and connections to be made. The book is well polished, I don’t know that it reads like a debut, which is always a good thing I suppose.  At times Imani is really unlikeable, but fortunately it doesn’t last too long, same goes for Amira and her bouts of childishness juxtaposed with her glimpses of maturity. Taha, is noted to be very different depending on the company he keeps, so while frustrating- it seems to be intentional. The only real hiccup I felt in the book was understanding how at times the language differences were such an obstacle and how at other times Imani could read the graffiti and be understood.

FLAGS:

Magic, romance, lust, kisses, flirting, attempted sexual assault, lying, killing, addiction, alcohol, drinking, murder, abuse, physical abuse, bullying, oppression, colonizing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I would pick this as a book club read, but I would definitely shelve it in a class, school, or home library.  I think it is a fun read for teens and up and I look forward to the rest of the series.  The book releases in January 2023 and as always presales are the biggest way to show support to authors and titles.  You can find the book here.

 

 

House of Yesterday by Deeba Zargarpur

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House of Yesterday by Deeba Zargarpur

house of yesterday

While reading this 320 page YA supernatural/contemporary book-I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.  When finished- I was bothered that certain threads weren’t resolved, now that I’ve ruminated a bit- I think the vagueness of the author’s prose in sharing her “fever dream” on paper has lingered and the gaps not as troublesome.  The author’s OWN voice Afghan-Uzbek Muslim identity adds layers to a story that is both haunting in the literal sense and familiar in the immigration inter-generational traumas and secrets shared.  Even deeper though, the book pokes at universal themes of regret, holding on to the past, family, friendships, and grief.   The book’s characters identify as Muslim, but the story is not Islamic, nor is there much religion save a few salams and mentions of Eid.  The supernatural elements in the book, whether you understand it to be ghosts, or personified memories, or jinn, are a large part of the book, but are not framed in a belief or spiritual manner, and while some may find it Islamically off-putting, I felt the book explored what the main character was enduring and what the weight of the past was doing to her, didn’t necessarily cross the haram line.  Her father has a girlfriend he is looking to marry, but it isn’t celebrated, and there are close male/female friendships, but the book is relatively clean for the genre and would be a good fit for high school readers and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Summer on Long Island has Sara retreating into herself.  Surrounded by nearly a dozen aunts and uncles and numerous cousins, it is the separation of her parents and trouble with her best friend that makes getting out of bed every morning a challenge.  As a result, her mother ropes her in to helping with her latest remodeling project.  When she enters an old crumbling house one morning to take “before” pictures, she starts seeing things, and feeling things.  Things about her past.  Things about her beloved grandma, Bibi Jan, who is alive and deteriorating from dementia.  What is the house trying to tell her? Why won’t anyone tell the truth?

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the mystery and the chills of the story.  As the reader you aren’t entirely sure where the story is headed, what you are to do with the bits of the puzzle you are given, but the intrigue to find out pulls you forward.  That being said, the book does reads debut, a few of the side story lines are not fleshed out enough to feel important, satisfying, or resolved and they come across as being abandoned.  I would have liked to see more of Sara and her father’s relationship, the details don’t seem to fit, and the continuity seems halfhearted.  At times so does the “night” it all changed with Sam.  I like the interpretive vagueness of the supernatural threads and that they are up for interpretation amongst readers not just at the end, but throughout the book.  I also like the family’s closeness even when they are disagreeing. For most of the book Sara and her cousins aren’t portrayed as particularly close and I didn’t invest time to differentiate one from another, but by the end, I felt that they were grounded and different and relatable, and I am not sure when that change occurred.  At times the writing seemed a bit repetitive, but the lyrical style would then catapult the story ahead.  There was one place that the fourth wall was broken though, and I was bothered by that slip.

Overall I loved that the Uzben Afghan culture sprinkles showed immigrant nuances, and that the love between the generations countered the trauma being shared as well.  The messaging is subtle but powerful long after the last page has been read.

FLAGS:

For the most part the book stays clean, the father has moved on and has met someone he would like to marry, the mom and aunts briefly recall sneaking out to attend a prom decades earlier.  There is mention of a child bride, and swimsuits, tank tops, and cocktail dresses being worn with no second thought.  For a YA book, the flags are incredibly minimal, save the “ghosts”(?). There are flags of a death that is detailed, the book is “spooky” at times, there is mental health, divorce, pain, dementia, abandonment, theft, running away, and fear.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to read this book with some high schoolers.  It is a quick read that would allow for a lot of self reflection, arguments, and entertainment.  The book is available here and releases in a few days, so if planning to purchase, please consider preordering and showing your support.

A Darkness at the Door by Intisar Khanani

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A Darkness at the Door by Intisar Khanani

darkness

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

nura and the immortal palace

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

zachary ying

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.