I struggled with this 384 page young adult fantasy. It skirts and plays with Islamic doctrine as the characters and plot points dance with fantasy and fiction; and because I never felt that the author was completely in control of the story and where it was going, I could never relax and be swept away. The author identifies as Muslim and in the backmatter addresses how experiences with Islamophobia influenced her writing, yet I don’t know why jinn and hijab were in the book when fictionalized creatures and cultural dress would have sufficed. Clearly the character on the cover is in hijab, the names of half the characters are Muslamic, the culture is very desi, the broad concepts of jinn, the ghaib, sihr, Prophet Sulaiman, call to prayer, are all Islamically rooted, but characters go to worship at temples, jinn and jinniya eat corpses and are described so often as looking like smoke. There is no clear identifier that these characters are in fact Muslim, it is simply hinted at, which makes the fictional parts seem like extensions of religious doctrine and ultimately made me uncomfortable with much of the story. It also makes me think readers will not know where the lines are, if my brain was muddled, I can’t imagine a young teen reading it and keeping it clear. There is a few rushed romantic scenes of kissing, there is a trans character who’s gender identity and born gender is a significant plot line in the story, and there is a lot of oppression, racism, death, abuse, misogyny and fear. It is a dark read that metaphorically takes real societal concepts and sets them in shades of gray with the added use of fantasy. There are a lot of layers in the story, and while it wasn’t poorly written, there were definitely places it needed to be better. I really didn’t like any of the characters, I didn’t understand their motives, their relationships, their drives, the commentary on occupiers and rebels was weak as was the push back on misogyny after the first few chapters. I didn’t feel a love of hot air balloons or feel that the battle scenes accounted for many of the characters that would suddenly be missing from the scenes. I think the dual perspectives kept the intensity of the climaxes at bay and halted the rising action. Too many misses for me to recommend this standalone book, but if you’ve read it and can talk me through it, I’m willing to listen.
In a land where girls are running out of time to be arranged in marriage at 17 and transportation is done in hot air balloons, there are two groups of citizens: the darker Ghadaean’s are the rulers and the lighter skinned hāri are oppressed. The book establishes this power dynamic early on in a quick synopsis: the hāri came from the Himala mountain range to trade to Ghadaea, but their greed and lust for power drove them to try and seize the land. They failed, and now 90 years later the hāri are punished for the mistakes of their grandfathers (4%). Both groups fear sihr and jinn. Everyone is vegetarian because jinn are attracted to rotting corpses, animal and human, and thus anything dead is quickly burned. When a radical hāri group, the Hāreef, is formed with a new leader, sihr and jinn are no longer enemies but tools to rebel against the racist oppression, and assist in the war to change the balance of power.
Khadija is 16 and with her mother and younger brother deceased at the hands of some hāri, her older sister married and off in a balloon, her father is desperate to get her married. Most females are not allowed to read, nor are they even allowed out of the house alone. The fear of the jinn is weaponized to keep them in, and misogyny prevents from proving themselves. While out meeting with a suitor, Khadija in a burst of desperation leaves her father and jumps in to an escaping balloon. Khadija does not know how to fly a balloon, having never even ridden in one, but when it lands in different town she meets Jacob.
Jacob is hāri and the second of the dual perspectives telling the story, he is orphaned and is unique in that he is an apprentice of a glass blowing Ghadaean. He meets Khadija and offers her food, and in the span of a few hours she saves him and he saves her and both seem to have a dead glass blower on their hands. Add this to his growing rift with his best friend William, who has joined the Hāreef, and is now dead, and you have Khadija and Jacob escaping in a balloon, not trusting each other nor knowing who and what they support.
From here on the two’s friendship and motives wax and wane as they are drawn in to battle together, and against each other. Neither are “good” or “bad” nor are their decisions always clear, but they will be forced none-the-less to figure out what they want and what they stand for as peri’s are tortured, nawab’s are killed, jinnya queens are called upon, wishes are granted and a group of hāri and Ghadeans known as the Wazeem offer a unified collective. Unfortunately, change and power never come easy and when a dead son is brought back as an ifrit and an ancient princess in the jinn world is ready to battle, all the shades of gray that exist in politics, revolution, rebellions, families, hate, racism, gender identities, and control all come spilling out from balloon baskets and the ghaib.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I honestly kept reading to see how the author was going to bring it to a conclusion and wrap up all the loose threads. And while the book lagged at times, she definitely got it concluded. Aside from the religious signaling, but never owning identity problems, I struggled with the writing too. The hāri Jacob doesn’t read like a little brother, he and Khadija read the same age, and so his importance in the Hāreef seems an ill fit. Plus he is very duplicitous and I get that that is part of the story, but I never liked him so it just got annoying how many second, third, fourth chances he got, and I mean, why would anyone care?
Khadija seems like she is going to battle misogyny early on, I hate that marriage and arranged marriage is equated to oppression, but the not being allowed out and not being educated seems to fizzle in the middle and then come out a bit in the final scene. I hoped it would have been commented on in every new city they arrived at. The set up was there, but because it wasn’t, it made it seem more of a shortsightedness of her own father, and not a larger problem when strong women existed elsewhere. This also reinforced a “brown Muslim” man stereotype that is never pushed back on.
The racism, power struggle oppression is more consistent, but with the foundation that the hāri came and tried to take over nearly 90 years ago makes it hard to feel too bad for them. They tried to occupy and now are enslaved. Neither is ideal, but why didn’t they just go back? We aren’t talking more than one generation, it is the “crimes of their grandfathers,” they had a home, they were kicked out, they should leave. Yes, I know they are human and racism is wrong, my point is a literary one, that the foundation should have been stronger, more detailed.
The love interest I also felt was lacking, Darian comes out of nowhere, they are in love, he gives her his heart so he is saved, I didn’t feel the tension, I didn’t get it, not at all. It was forced and cheesy and I just know he kept getting hurt, they would kiss, and then he was back to getting hurt or possessed or something, had no personality what so ever.
The seal of Prophet Sulaiman and the hundreds of pieces of it didn’t sit right with me, nor the jinns being smoky and eating corpses. I truly don’t understand why very real Islamic concepts were brought in and twisted. Why not just create your own characters and say they were loosely inspired. I felt like the religious rep and OWN voice kept one foot in the religious inspired world and one in the fantasy is fiction so I can do what I want, and it didn’t work for me. I think it crossed in to being disrespectful, and had the author not identified herself as Muslim, I would have been furious as the book reads like an outsider who doesn’t get that jinn are real, Prophet Sulaiman was real, sihr is real, the ghaib is real. It really needed some some clarification on where the story existed and where the religion or religious inspiration started and stopped.
The trans character is worth highlighting because it does touch into Islamic rulings regarding hijab, even though we don’t know if Anam or any of the characters are Muslim. Anam is born a male, but leaves her family of exorcists and is a leader of the Wazeem as a female. She presents as a female, but when she enters a room where numerous Wazeem women are changing many hide, draw their hijabs, make horrified gestures etc., it has to be explained to Khadija why this is. It does not bother Khadija. Story wise it is a critical point because the Jinniya Queen Mardzma is the queen of female warriors and it is unknown if Anam would be seen as female or male. When Anam went from being an exorcist to the greatest human warrior present is beyond me, but there was a lot of assumptions you had to accept while reading.
Death, erroneous religious rep, kissing, murder, killing, lying, torturing, threat of sexual assault, murder, coming back from the dead, oppression, racism, trans, misogyny, abuse, hetero relationships, stealing.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would not shelve this book in an Islamic school library or classroom, nor would I use it as a book club selection. Although if my local public library or some adult Muslims read it and were planning to discuss, I would join to hear their thoughts about it. I would not be able to lead, but I would enjoy picking it apart with others.
The book releases shortly, just because it didn’t work for me, if you think it sounds like something you would like, you can preorder and purchase it HERE.