I truly am glad I read this book. I love historical fiction, visiting Spain is on my bucket list, this book has a map, details about what is historical what is fiction, has Islam woven in to the heart and soul of the story and characters, and yet it was a hard read. The first few pages grip you, the last 50 bring it all together, but the middle 250 were hit and miss in this lower YA/upper MG book. I honestly had to force myself to keep reading. My teen and tween son couldn’t get past 38 pages or so, and I’ve asked around and no one I know that started the book, finished it. I think ultimately there are just too many characters, too many points of view, that even though the history is rich, the literary points all in order, their isn’t enough character connection to hold the readers through the wandering details. This author’s style is a bit more slow, but I think in the House of Ibn Kathir series, the setting of being in school and having friend problems is relatable to readers; boarding horses on to a boat, deciding to wage war, and going in to battle are not familiar concepts, and without the emotional connection it loses momentum. The climax is nice but ultimately rather lackluster, and the beauty of characters taking shahada, Jews being freed, Solomon’s table, an old lady with a premonition, and a character dying are just not enough to keep the story in reader’s hands, unfortunately.
The summary might make the book seem fast paced, and while it does constantly move forward to a clear destination, it isn’t a “buckle your seatbelt and hang on” type of story. The setting is Northern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula in 711 CE, 92 years after the Hijrah. The book opens with two young siblings Ben and Bella, overlooking the coast, dreading their lives under Visigoth oppression, and hiding their Jewish culture and faith. It then jumps to the Governor of Ceuta, Count Julian (Ilyan), awaiting to meet with Umayyad leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad. He is hoping to rescue his daughter from the court of King Roderick and convince the Muslim General to enter Iberia, restore the rightful king, and free the people essentially. Add in voices from Qasim, a young Berber, and Jacob a captured Iberian, and the stage is set to get everything in order to cross the straights, survey the enemy, take on the King, and introduce Islam to the new land.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I absolutely love the Islam and the history and the fictional liberties. I love that the book is clean, although, I do wonder if more information about Lady Florinda would have helped the reader understand her father’s desperation, I do understand the vagueness, but it is a glaring omission that keeps the reader curious. Ultimately I wanted more backstory. The little given about the characters was engaging. I loved the teasing about being a shepherd, Jacob coming to love Islam, Bella not wanting to marry, but it seemed to always stop short of sweeping me away. I didn’t cry (SPOILER) when Hisham died, I barely knew him. I didn’t feel the urgency to hide and escape from Leander’s proposal. It set up to add depth regarding Old Mother Magda, the Cave of Secrets, and the unverified death of the king, but after being stated it was never mentioned again or resolved for any real purpose.
All that aside, I think the book has value, it is just really dry in spots, a lot of spots, and given the vocabulary, the changing narrators, the choppiness between chapters, and the history, it is hard to keep reading or be anxious to pick up once you have put it down. So with all that in mind, I think the book would be great to use in a classroom setting. You could read a chapter Monday, and then pick it back up on Thursday and not worry that no one remembers anything because it is focusing on new characters anyway. In a middle school, or upper elementary the book would be a great crossover between History, English, and Islam classes. The book would naturally lend itself to the students keeping character journals, the supplements and backmatter would allow for references and insight in to real history, and I think the book would do really well in this set up to connect with the audience.
The Epilogue was nice, but a little disjointed. I appreciated the updates on the characters and it showing Muslims and people of other faiths coexisting and being accepting even within families, but the connection to the story was a little lost. Similarly, I love that it mentioned Abbas Ibn Firnas, but I don’t know that most kids know enough about him to know what is being hinted at and what the outcome was of his flight at the end.
Death, war, battles, killing, nothing graphic, very tame, not graphic or detailed gore.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I don’t know that I could get middle school students to read the book for a book club, it would have to be motivated by a grade to get through it in a classroom setting I’m afraid. See above to read my thoughts on how to present it.
I purchased my book on Amazon and will receive a few pennies if you decide to purchase a copy using this link.