I was kind of surprised how well done this YA culture rich 350 page romance story was in holding my attention. I don’t know that I had any expectations, but I was genuinely engaged in the growth of the protagonist as she began to emerge from her naive political state, and I look forward to some resolution from the cliffhanger conclusion of this the first book in the Marghazar Trials series. The characters are practicing Muslims who pray and mention Allah swt regularly, they also acknowledge when they make extreme departures from basic Islamic tenants such as drinking, dancing, murdering, exhibiting racist attitudes, and mixing freely with the opposite gender. It doesn’t stop any of the characters from behaving as they wish, but at least it is noted. The Urdu words and Pakistani setting in this fictional reimagining is filled with warmth and love, and while there are some steamy scenes and outright cruelties, I think 15 year olds and up can handle the contents, and recognize the suspension of reality and moral laxities for the sake of telling a story.
The book makes clear from the onset that “In the very olden time, there lived a semi-barbaric king. . . This is not his story.” This is the story of 18 year old Durkhanai, an orphaned princess raised by her grandparents, the King and Queen of Marghazar. Marghazar is a prosperous country that is waging war on two fronts and does not let outsiders in, ever. When the book begins it is doing so begrudgingly to avoid war with the neighboring districts that are working to unify and have recently been attacked. With ambassadors arriving to determine the guilt or innocence of the one district unaffected by the terrorist attacks, the foreigners are seeing the inner workings of the kingdom for the first time. All the ambassadors are females of various ages and experience, save the one from Jardum. Asfandyar is young, dark, and handsome, and immediately discriminated against by the Badshah for his complexion. Additionally Shehzadi has been warned by many to stay away from Asfandyar, which naturally makes him a great character for her to be swept away by. She holds out for a while, but with her people mysteriously getting ill, her betrothed melting in to the background, and cracks in her country making themselves obvious, Durkhanai will find herself struggling to understand her heart, her country, her family, and her future, and with the cliff hanger ending, no simple answers will be given to her, or the reader.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that there is a map at the beginning, and lots of supplemental offerings at the end. There are a lot of Urdu words and phrases and while I am moving away from feeling like all OWN voice books need to include glossaries, I think non Desi readers will be appreciative in this particular book to have one available. For someone with some knowledge of the language the inclusion of the titles and relations and phrases between the languages is expertly done and delightful. There is also an author Q & A, as well as reader discussion questions. There is a content warning at the beginning alerting the readers to physical and sexual assault as well as racist behavior and language and makes clear that it is contained to the characters and the story and is not the reflection of the author and publisher. I like that it is there, and I like that the princess makes a stance against the racism and the sexual assault that she witnesses.
The high school girls at our Islamic School are always wanting “halal” romance books. Ok so really they just want romance books, but I try and keep their pickings halal, and so I am forever reading these books trying to find new titles to recommend. The book is very 1990s Bollywood in terms of romance flags. There is a lot of proximity and caressing of necks and longing, and familiar obligation. There is some snuggling and kissing, so maybe 2000s Bollywood, but the characters thus far don’t cross “that” line.
I really appreciated that Durkhanai was fleshed out and relatable. Even though the setting is long ago, and the genre is romance, she didn’t wait to be rescued, even when she was hurting or pining, she was still maintaining her obligations and moving forward. I also love that it showed some depth to her emotions. She recognized that Asfandyar would let her speak and would show his support by being there, but he pushed back on her and challenged her too. Rashid on the other hand would speak for Durkhanai and would fawn over her in a very superficial way almost. Sure neither relationship was ideal, but from her perspective at least she was able to see how various presentations made her feel.
I was a little lost in some places, but I was reading quick and had distractions so I’m not entirely sure if it is my carelessness or plot holes or if gaps will be filled in future books. I needed more reasoning though, for why Durkhanai’s cousins, Zarmina and Saifullah, truly hated Asfandyar as much as they did, or what exactly Saifullah was plotting and how it connected to ratting out the princess. For all that is seemingly going on, the Badshah and Wali always seem available to chat and are often just lounging around. I know it is not their story, but the negotiations, the plotting, everything seems to be done very slowly and could really use some fleshing out to show some depth to the side characters. Other than a few voices, the side details are lacking.
Lying, killing, racism, sexual assault, physical assault, plotting, murder, kissing, manipulation, touching, caressing, sneaking around, theft, cruelty, cursing, romance.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
The book is not an Islamic story or even a moral one, it is entertainment and it could possibly be used for a book club if the participants relish in these kind of books, but it probably wouldn’t have wide enough appeal and would alienate nearly all the boys from joining.