This 336 page middle grade fantasy book had a lot of promise for me, but ultimately fell a little flat. The protagonist was likeable, there was emotion, the story was compelling, and I know it is widely said that debut novels tend to be a little weak or be underdeveloped or having pacing problems, yet I hesitate these days to use this as an excuse. I’ve been around the industry a few years and it seems many author’s debut novel, is not, in fact, the first book they’ve written or even the first book they’ve “sold.” Books are written and finalized years before they are released for some genres particularly of late, so I’m trying not to let myself get caught up in the author’s writing journey (I’m sure I’m all sorts of wrong about what I think it would be anyway), and just review the book in front of me. This book has no religion, and I don’t know if the author identifies as Muslim. There are a hodgepodge of Arab and Desi cultural references in the characters’ names, and in the sprinkling in of salwar qamis, abaya, head scarf, sambusak, and there is a ma’a salama at one point along with the presence of jinn (not religiously referenced). There is also mention of medicinal wine, magic, a lady who has a crush on another lady in her youth, music, and dancing. The book held my interest as I wanted to see how it unraveled, and I recognize that there is a book two, so some of my thoughts might be premature, but I struggled with the premise of the protagonist trying to understand the journey her deceased mother has sent her on, and how the person she was supposed to find for the answers simply won’t talk, even though the two are living together. It made the story really drag in places and seem underdeveloped. The world building, the backstories, the adventure at hand, really is imaginative, but the development of the relationships in the story are absolutely non existent, and the book overall suffers because of it. Also the ease in which rising action is resolved is often the kids just throwing an idea out and it being right. I read and review through a critical lens and many recent middle grade fantasy books have been absolutely incredible, perhaps it isn’t fair to compare, but this book just came up short for me in developing memorable characters and plot, even though all the elements were present, capitalizing on bringing it all together stayed just out of reach unfortunately.
Yara’s mother has died and when she finds a letter with instructions of what to do and where to go should this moment arrive, she decides to dodge her social worker and journey to a world of magic across the sea. Unsure of her own background, she thinks she might be Iraqi, but doesn’t speak Arabic, she longs to find a place to belong, and when she arrives in Zehaira and hears the language of her mother, she is hopeful that this Leyla Khatoun, who lives in the third to last house on Istehar Way, will provide her with answers. But alas Leyla is not there, the Sultan’s alchemists are, and Yara is now on the run in a foreign land. Help finds her and with a little magic she finds Leyla. Leyla begrudgingly takes her in, but refuses her any insight into her past, her relationship with her mother, or why the letter directed Yara to her. As the alchemists poison the sorcerers, Leyla and some other kids (friends?) have to find a way to save the settlement and magic in the land.
WHY I LIKE IT:
Yara as a character is likeable, she is plucky, resourceful, determined, and despite her circumstance does not want or need pity or handouts. She advocates for animals, the poor, is a grassroots organizer, and unapologetic in how she carries herself. I love that she isn’t whiney or helpless, and that she trusts herself to problem solve and isn’t afraid to think outside the box, while maintaining her kindness and appreciation for those around her.
As someone who doesn’t like Alice in Wonderland type stories, this book grounded the world building in an easily consumable way, so even though it is Yara leaving the UK and stepping into a new world, the functioning of the new world didn’t feel random or surprising. While this was beneficial for someone like me, it made the focus of the story more on the characters’ relationships in enhancing the plot, and the book wasn’t strong in showing those connections. Yara meets a map maker for a moment and a cat, and months later recalls the cat and the map maker by name and face. A boy, Rafi, who is also studying magic and Yara don’t get along, yet are friends because it says so, the book doesn’t show us their bond. Rafi meets some great uncle and the great uncle is painfully underdeveloped (along with his “friend”) and the tangent weak in reinforcing the major climax. The relationship between Yara and Leyla is the center of the story and so glossed over, there is no tangible connection, or cathartic release when details emerge, it was very disappointing to say the least. Yara and Ajal, the jinn, what is that relationship even, she frees him à la Aladdin freeing the Genie, but they are friends, not friends, he looks out for her, but doesn’t like her, the telling and the showing don’t align. Even Yara’s relationship with the settlement and the inhabitants is disconnected from the plot of saving magic. The climax is weak because we, the reader, don’t feel any connection to any magical folk. The emotion of the mother dying at the beginning and the slight retrospection (I’m not going to spoil it) of the mother’s love at the end, was developed and made me invested in Yara, that same energy did not present itself, sadly, in any other relationships in the book.
Death, loss, poison, imprisonment, magic, mention of medicinal wine, one line mention of a female character liking another female character as more than a friend, dancing, singing, jinn, torture, male and female friendships, destruction, lying, sneaking.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I wouldn’t use this as a book club selection and wouldn’t go out of my way to shelve it in the school library or classroom library. I will probably read the second book though and see where the series goes and reevaluate. I will also probably read future works from the author as the sparks of good story telling and writing definitely show promise for the author even though this particularly book wasn’t “magical” for me.