Tag Archives: Dark

Shems and the Magic Seabream by Alwia Al-Hassan illustrated by Ada Konewki

Shems and the Magic Seabream by Alwia Al-Hassan illustrated by Ada Konewki


I don’t know how to review this book, I truly don’t, it claims to be based on Saudi folklore, it has #muslimsintheillustrations, and references Allah swt once, it is by a Muslim author, but it isn’t religious. And it definitely isn’t for everyone. It is terrible, and yet you can’t look away. Every stereotype about appearance and trope about step-mothers, it is all there, but EVIL CACKLE, the book is delicious, and not in the cooking the children and eating them sort of way, that is in the book too, but in the laugh-out-loud, gasp in disbelief, and be shocked at the complete disregard for political correctness, moral messaging, and lesson teaching that leaves a brightly illustrated dark tale for kids, and adults, to thoroughly enjoy. It pulls you in, it suspends reality, it makes good and bad so black and white that you accept the attempts at murder as justified, and it ultimately reminds you of the horrors that all fairytales build upon to entertain. I remember the first time as an adult I was asked to read Hansel and Gretel to a young niece. I knew the story, and started not thinking much of it, and then I froze: children are lost, they seek shelter in a home where they are not allowed to leave, the owner of the home wants to cook them and eat them. Yeah, this book is like that.


Shems and her twin sister Shareefa live in a small town with their fisherman father. They are poor, but happy, until their father remarries and the stepmother is horrid. She is ugly and fat and covered in greasy spots, negative connotations that reflect her personality. (FLAGS: superficial judgement and body shaming). She hates children. (FLAG: Yes it uses the word hate, and calls children fat while contrasting them with cute children).


She especially hates Shems and Shareefa. She tries to get rid of them: she puts them in the oven, abandons them in a field, tries to drown them in the night. But the girls somehow always escape and their father believes that it was all a misunderstanding. (FLAG: attempted murder).


Now that the girls are older, they are forced to serve Mama Ouda, and when food runs low, she considers eating them. (FLAGS: abuse and threats). Luckily they are much too thin. One day when Mama Ouda is craving fish, Shems heads out to catch some seabream, yes that is a real type of fish. And the only one she catches is a magical one. (FLAG: magic).


The next day Shems dressed as Shareefa recalls the fish’s promise near the water, and a basket of fish appears with pieces of sparkling gold. The girls eat like queens, hide the gold, and keep Mama Ouda fed. This carries on until they get caught and a murder and mermaid and moving out of their mud hut conclude the story and set up a potential sequel.


The dad is pretty clueless and that has its own negative assumptions to counter, but if you and your kids can handle the over the top darkness, the story written in playful rhymes is sure to entertain and be asked for repeatedly. (FLAGS: stereotypes about fathers and stepmothers).

Good Little Wolf by Nadia Shireen

Good Little Wolf by Nadia Shireen


I have way too many conflicting thoughts for this 32 page AR 2.1 Muslim authored picture book.  The good little wolf, with a cast of familiar story book characters getting cameos, is choppy in its simple story telling to the point I thought pages had been skipped more than once, funny in asking the three little pigs permission to blow their houses down, slightly moral in elevating good behavior and having the courage to hold to your goodness, and ultimately, possibly really dark, as the end gives reason to believe that wolves will be wolves and the good little wolf is no more, as in he has been killed along with an old granny too.  


Rolf is a good little wolf that likes to bake, eat his vegetable and be nice to his friend.  His best friend Mrs. Boggins has warned him that not all wolves are as nice as he is and Rolf hopes he will never meet a big bad wolf.


Alas, he does meet the Big Bad Wolf, and he questions if Rolf is a wolf at all.  To prove that he is a wolf he accepts the big bad wolf’s challenges:  He howls or rather whistles at the moon and he tries to blow his friend pig’s house in.  Eventually he resolves that he isn’t mean enough to be a wolf, then the Big Bad Wolf gives him one more chance as he holds out a fork and knife to the wolf while restraining Mrs. Boggins. D31DC212-C85D-439B-BBCF-2A1CEA6F1FF8

Rolf feels something deeply and ties up the Big Bad Wolf feeling more wolf like than ever.  He just happens to be a good little wolf.  To celebrate they all sit down for a snack and the Big Bad Wolf decides to stop eating people…tomorrow.


Yeah, it isn’t clear and could be up for debate, but Rolf and Mrs. Boggins are no longer at the table, and the Big Bad Wolf looks pretty happy.


There is nothing religious in the book, it could be debated if the book is dark or just silly and aside from the choppiness of the transitions, overall the book is a fun turn on classic characters and concepts.


Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan illustrated by Ben Hibon

Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan illustrated by Ben Hibon

shadow magic.jpg

This book is fun and enchanting, whether you read all 321 pages and fall in to the occasional illustrations and pour over the map, or listen to the audio and get swept away.  It is an AR 4.1, and the first in the three part series.  Told by the point of view of two characters, the book’s short chapters and high action speed are expertly crafted to keep suspense and interest high, while maintaining solid world building events and making the character’s history come alive.  There isn’t anything Islamic in the books, save some critical and cleverly named characters and ideas, but the author in interviews has said he is Muslim, and that is enough for me to share a book I thoroughly enjoyed on this blog!


Thorn is a fugitive kid, on the run from something left intentional vague and possibly the son of an outlaw.  Raised on the edge of Herne forest (earth), he is good with animals, feels comfortable in nature, has a soft heart for doing what is right, and isn’t afraid of hard work.  He finds himself being sold as a slave to the executioner of Gehenna, Tyburn, and is off to Castle Gloom where he will meet and befriend the new ruler of House Shadow (death/darkness), Lily.

Lillith Shadow’s parents and brother have been murdered and she is now the ruler of Gehenna.  She is also still a child and events around her require her to grow up fast.  To end hostilities with House Solar she is to wed Prince Gabriel, a pompous idiot, who she despises in principle and in person.  

When an attempt is made on Lily’s life, Thorn and an unexpected ally, K’leef a Prince from the Sultanate of Fire, must work together to figure out who is trying to kill Lily, possibly who killed her parents, where Thorn’s father is, who is raising an army of zombies, and now how to get out of this wedding without causing continued war.

The history of the six founding houses that make up this world, and their elemental magical rules and limitations as magic dies out with each passing generation, come together and a tale is told that contrasts easy everyday language in a mystical proper world of royalty and dukes, colored by the dark of death and necromancy and shadows, while somehow remaining light, and funny, and completely relatable as the kids come of age and learn who they are and what they are capable of doing and accomplishing.


I love that the book is clean and that it has both Thorn and Lily’s perspectives to move the story along and give insight into the characters.  I love the world building and how the history of each of the houses is so well thought out and clear.  

“The whole idea of House Shadow is based on the Middle-East. Lily’s dad’s name is Arabic for the devil. Her mother’s the great villainess of the Old Testament and Lily is Lilith, a Hebrew demoness. The view people have of House Shadow mimics the fear the West has of East, and specifically Islam. For that reason all of House Solar is named after archangels. . . Some houses were easier to establish than others. House Djinn was fire as djinns are (out of Arabic lore) beings of smokeless fire. Herne’s an ancient English forest deity, so again a pretty easy fix” (http://www.cybils.com/2017/03/interview-with-joshua-khan.html).

A big plot point is that Lily is magical, and it is against ancient laws, meaning all six houses agree, that women cannot practice magic.  The irony is great, in that even kids can pick up on the fact that the six brothers and founders of the magical houses acknowledge that the source of their magic comes from their mother, a woman, and the hypocrisy of it all is frustrating.  I love that three very different characters have to work together, and pick their battles, it really is a testament to the strength of friendships even with people so very different than yourself.


Pretty clean, not recalling anything cringeworthy as we listened to it in the car (kids ages 3, 8, 9, 12).  The book is dark in that it takes place in Gehenna and there is talk of the undead and bringing the dead back to life and they really celebrate Halloween in their own dark way.  There is murder and death and assassinations, but it isn’t overly morbid or gory or violent.


I think I’ve already 90% decided to start next years middle school book club off with this book.  It is fun and engaging and the discussions would connect this fantasy story to so much in the kid’s lives and greater world that I get giddy just thinking about how fun a discussion it will be.  Sadly the school year is wrapping up and I’ll have to wait until fall.  Here are some of my favorite interviews online with the author:



Author’s Website: http://www.joshuakhan.com/



An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Our local library automatically renews books, so I’ve had this 446 page AR 5.0 novel sitting on my night stand since October.  I got the online version when I went overseas, and I even downloaded the audio book.  Needless to say, I never opened it, in any form.  And then four days ago, I did.  I read the first page and then the second, and soon enough I knew that I would quickly be annoyed by my children needing food, and clean clothes and rides to school because, I was no longer present in the day-to-day functions of my life, I was in Serra hoping for happy endings and being really angry, like ready to contact the Muslim author during certain scenes, as I felt tears reminiscent of when Cedric Diggory was killed in book 4 of Harry Potter brimming.  The book was amazing, and yes, my kids are fairly well cared for, but there are two more books in the series out, and the fourth one apparently in the works.  I hope to read the series, but I have a feeling, this epic fantasy series will not be a happy read, it is dark, and violent, and definitely more suited for high school readers because of content then the AR level would suggest.  


Told from two different characters ‘perspectives: Laia and Elias, the world of Serra has tastes of the Roman Empire, current political headlines, Middle Eastern names, subcontinent ideas and lots of action.  Laia is a Scholar, an oppressed people who a half a millennium ago crumbled beneath the Martial invasion.  Her parents led a resistance and were killed a long with a sister.  She and her brother, Darin, are now raised by the grandparents: gentle people who heal others, keep their heads down, and don’t make waves.  The story quickly advances with Martials raiding the family home and Masks, the elite warriors of the Martials, killing Laia’s grandparents and imprisoning Darin.  Laia escapes by running, but hates herself for not staying and fighting for her brother, the only family she has left.

Elias on the other hand is a Martial soldier about to graduate as a Mask from Blackcliff Academy, a brutal (that’s putting it mildly) nearly all boy’s military school.  Abandoned by his mother as a baby, Elias is contemplating running away from the school, as his soul and conscience can no longer be pushed aside to complete the acts he is expected to do.  The complications abound, however, as the Commandant, is his mother, who wants nothing more than to see him dead, the penalty for desertion is death, but the penalty for most every infraction is a severe beating, and if death happens in the process, so be it.

The two characters come together as Laia reaches out to the Resistance to find help in rescuing her brother and in exchange is assigned to be the Commandant’s personal slave.  As the Empire is on the cusp of change, a new emperor is to be selected from the top four of the current graduating class, Elias, is the top of his class.  The four trials will leave one triumphant and the new leader, second place will be the Blood Shrike, the emperors blood bonded butcher, the others will be killed. 

The trails are named: Courage, Cunning, Strength and Loyalty and are administered by immortal, mind reading, cave dwelling Augurs.  The trails are vicious and cruel and evoke not only putting friends against friends, and test one’s fears, but they are amplified by creatures such as jinns, efrits, ghuls and wraiths.


The book is incredibly well written.  The way the author builds her characters’ worlds is seamless and smooth.  I didn’t get lost or confused, I never once felt bored by explanations or felt that something didn’t make sense, a feeling that makes fantasy stories cumbersome and daunting to me, and what I feared all those months looking at the book, too afraid to open it and dive in. 

The action and characters are well developed.  While the book is fast paced, I felt every character was given some nuance and depth.  It really isn’t a good vs. evil story.  Each character has more than one trait at any given time, and it makes them delightful to interact with and mull over.  There are strong females and sprinkled in ethnic names like Sana, Illyas, Tariq, Afya Ara-Nur, Mazen, Zain, Zara.  The subcontinent concept of Izzat, honor, is prominent among the Resistance and Scholars which is a nice bit of resonance in this fictional world as well.  And the concept of jinns, and the stories about their role in the book, reads like Arab folklore.


The book has profanity, not a lot, but it is there, especially when talking about women.  The violence is incredibly graphic, killings, beatings, brutality, whippings, suffering, and death are on nearly every page.  The Martials are ruthless not only with those they occupy, but even amongst themselves: the students fight to their death, they lock their own children in cages without food so that only the strong of their society survive.  But even worse is that many of the people outside of the ruling elite are taken as slaves, and thus women are seen as property and rape abounds.  Rape by name is mentioned a lot, but it isn’t graphic, save one or two climactic points, if anything it is more disturbing because it is the norm and is accepted.  Prostitutes are mentioned, again, nothing detailed, but mentioned that the boys at the academy visit the docks to see prostitutes.  As Laia is being sold to a slave master, he considers placing her in the brothels rather than at the school.  Laia is nearly raped by a student, and a simmulated rape saves her at another time, in both instances the higher ups dismiss that there is anything wrong with raping a slave and the winner of the third trial is even given a slave for the night.  When the Masks kill Laia’s grandparents, one says he will rape Laia before he kills her.  So it is very much a part of the culture of the book, but it isn’t defined, just the words are used, which means I think high school kids could handle it, because it is not celebrated or graphic, but younger than that will have too many questions that can’t be swept away easily given the environment of the book.  


This book could work for a high school book club, because there is so much to talk about.  It won’t work for middle school, and I will keep my daughter from reading it until she is in 9th or 10th grade probably, even though she has read Hunger Games and the Divergent series.  Just want her a little older to handle all the rape references, in more mature way.

As for teaching or presenting this book, this series has a HUGE fandom, you can find everything on the book online and with little effort (maps, character lists, chat groups etc.).

The Author’s website: https://www.sabaatahir.com/

Teaching Books: https://www.teachingbooks.net/tb.cgi?a=1&tid=42018&s=n

One of many book trailers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbvyCrkVT7M

Enjoy! Happy Reading!

Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi

Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi


I am admittedly late to the Tahereh Mafi fan club, and to rectify that I checked out all her books from the library (There’s quite a few).  Yeah, I have four kids and not a ton of time, so I decided to start reading Whichwood thinking then I could review it here due to it’s jacket claiming “Persian Fantasy,” plus noticing characters having names tinged with Islamic culture: Benyamin, Roksana, and Laylee Layla Fenjoon.  So, while I guessed the 368 AR 7.5 wouldn’t have anything Islamic, I figured it would at least give Muslim kids a taste of themselves in some of the words and representation by the hijab wearing author. And I think I was right. 


Laylee is a mordeshoor, which means she is responsible for caring for the dead and moving them to the next world. Its hard physical work, and since her Maman has passed away and her Baba has gone a bit crazy, the grueling job is left to her.  She is desperately tired and overworked and behind, and the people of the town, Whichwood, abuse and ridicule her relentlessly.  Laylee’s world is a frozen wonderland filled with odd characters and occurrences and magic of all random and gruesome sorts.  Two children, Oliver and Alice, from a different magical land show up unexpectedly to help Laylee with her burden, but Laylee is not well and is on the verge of death, and their help is not initially wanted.  As Laylee starts to die, it will take her living friends, with their variety of magical gifts to bring her back to life, and the dead ghosts that she can speak with, to help her live a life worth enjoying.


I love that Rumi is mentioned and quoted.  I love that words such as hamam and halva are tossed in, it gives flavor to a book that doesn’t need it, but is enhanced by it none-the-less.  The world created is so bizarre, that I was pleasantly surprised how the author kept the descriptions from becoming confusing albeit at times circular and tedious, the book starts out slow, but speeds up as you progress.  The narrator is telling the tale, and speaks often directly to the reader, which is a literary device that one doesn’t see that often in YA books, and I really enjoyed it.  It kept the book inline and avoided plot holes, as the narrator could just tell you how she knew and keep the timeline of the story intact.  

The characters are amazing.  Laylee is 13 and on her own, washing and scrubbing and pulling nails out of corpses before burying them in the frozen earth.  All while being harassed by the ghosts around her.  She has dropped out of school, the community doesn’t even pay her financially or with respect for the work she does, and yet she plugs along.  The reader wants to feel sorry for her, but there isn’t time, there is a lot going on.  Alice’s magic is she can color the world, and Oliver has the gift of persuasion.  Benyamin, Laylee’s closest neighbor on the peninsula, has insects and spiders that live in him and that he can communicate with.  His ailing mother can speak with whales, and rides inside them as a form of transport.  Yeah, it’s a bit nuts.  And because it is so fantastic, at times the story isn’t predictable or even really seeming to move to a clear climax, there is just so much to take in.  

I don’t really even know what to critique in terms of what I wish I would have seen or felt was lacking because there was no expectation.  The book is a companion book to Furthermore, which I think I will do as later as an audio book with my kids.  Perhaps once I read that one I’ll know more about Oliver and Alice’s gifts as the book is about them, as I do have some lingering questions about their whimsical abilities and backstories.  I would have also like a bit more on the mordeshoors, how they are trained, when they marry what enchantments that entails etc.  Seems like the concept in its most basic form could have benefitted from a little more detail.

The book is dark, and there is some darkness in Laylee, and I think that is what makes me like her as a character.  There are some emotions that she really has to work through, and I like that it is fuzzy and messy, I think the target audience of the book will really identify with some of Laylee’s internal struggles. The heart of the book is solid and is very grounded in reality even with all the fantasy on the surface.  I love that Laylee isn’t affected by what other’s expect her to be, there is amazing strength in this being brought to the forefront.  Also, the crystallization of giving someone what they need, not what you think they need is a lesson that will hopefully linger in the readers. 


The book could be seen as grotesque, but I didn’t find it overly icky, I think middle school and up will  be perfectly ok with all the death.  Oliver is completely star struck and in love with Laylee and her beauty.  But, the book hints only at a future romance.  Similarily, Benyamin and Alice might have a future, but it isn’t mentioned more than a crush and isn’t dwelled on or annoying to the action of dead bodies coming out of their graves or anything like that.


Author’s Website: http://www.taherehbooks.com/

A youtube review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bgwtFqiFIi0