When I requested this book, I really thought it was YA, when I saw it was 528 pages I went online to see what I missed, and sure enough it is considered an “Adult Fantasy” and in the process I read some of the (negative) reviews about the book. I grew nervous as I’m not naturally a fantasy fan, mg fantasy is more my level, with occasional YA entrapping me. I told myself 25% is the least I could do, and if it wasn’t clicking, I’d know I gave it a genuine shot. By about 21% I couldn’t put it down. I think not expecting the complexities of an adult book was a benefit. The book has no Islam, it contains Egyptian cultural references, but religion is not present, and thankfully that means no djinn either (they seem over represented these days). The protagonist is in her early twenties, it has an enemies to lovers trope, and magic is central to the storyline, but aside from frequent unremorseful murder and torture, an intimate make-out scene at the end, and some drinking of ale, the book is fairly clean. I feel like there might have been some plot holes, but I honestly was so swept up in the story and proud of myself for understanding the world building and politicking, that I am just going to assume I missed something or it will be addressed in the next book of the series. The author is Muslim and while it is labeled Adult, I think high school juniors and seniors and up, can and will, love Sylvia and Arin and sorting through the lies and deception to see the Jasadi heir rise.
The book follows Sylvia a young woman apprenticing with the village chemist, living in a keep (aka orphanage) and hiding her magic, or rather hiding that she is Jasadi, her magic is useless with the invisible handcuffs placed on her as a child before the kingdom burned in the Blood Summit. She is unkind, harsh, and selfish, but somehow a few other orphans have not been scared off and on her birthday she is forced to acknowledge that people in her life might care about her. There are four kingdoms that remain (Lukub, Omal, Orban, and Nizahl) and every three years they participate in the Alcalah, a battle to pay honor to the founding siblings who were entombed to cease their magic from destroying others and going mad. The tradition makes no sense as the champions often end up dead (think Hunger Games), and the people acknowledge it, but none-the-less, they all get caught up in the excitement and entertainment. Since the destruction of Jasad, the magic kingdom, magic everywhere has been outlawed. Originally all people had magic, but it was lost over time. Sylvia is the heir of the Jasad kingdom, and with no magic and no sense of obligation to Jasadis that have scattered, she carries on hoping to one day take over for the aging chemist. When the son of the Supreme responsible for the death of her loved ones and all of Jasad crosses her path, deals will be made, a champion will be crowned and love will felt. Sylvia will also have to reexamine people from her past, her selective memories, and decide what type of future she wants to fight for.
WHY I LIKE IT:
Phew, even writing that lame summary was challenging, the book weaves a lot together and I loved the politics and world building, but clearly don’t feel confident enough to discuss it. I think the slow burn romance was a little obvious, but I also think the author knew it would be obvious and rather than try and disguise it, she embraced it, and provided actual obstacles in their coming together (they cannot touch), not just that they want to kill each other. I am assuming that the physical copy (I read an electronic arc), will have a map and perhaps a list of the kingdoms and characters. It wasn’t hard to keep it all straight, but it will definitely add to the overall packaging.
I would have liked a little more explanation at points, even if it is my own weakness requiring it, but I didn’t understand the magic mining, the handcuffs, and would have liked a little more back story on the warring magic factions, their splintering timeline, and Soraya’s fallout. I also would have liked more about Sylvia’s parents relationship and how that union came to be across two kingdoms. Honestly I didn’t even quite get Sefa and Marek’s relationship. I probably needed to slow down and read, but I couldn’t it was action packed, fast paced, and I needed to know what was coming next. The climax was a little weak and the book ended on a cliff hanger as a book two is already forthcoming, but the fact that I read it and enjoyed it, speaks volumes as to the characters, story quality, writing, and approachability of the book.
Mention of rape, whores, sexual assault, sex, a character is asked if a character’s needs are met by a man or a woman, an intimate male/female passionate scene at the end, using physical flirting as a distraction, theft, killing, lying, torture, murder, poisoning, breaking of a back, stabbing, it is an adult fantasy, there is all sorts of deviant behavior, but I really think 17 and up even in an Islamic school can handle it.
TOOLS TO LEAD THE DISCUSSION:
The backmatter and author reference the book to Egypt, yet aside from the names and some foods and clothing, there isn’t a lot that a casual reader would catch. I think discussion about the Arab Spring and linking the plot to real politics could make for a fun discussion in a high school book club setting. There is some Arabic sprinkled in that I would assume is accurate and would enjoy having translated by students as well.