Raybearer: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Raybearer by Jordan IfuekoTarisai has grown up with every luxury imaginable–except for a loving family. Her mother, known as The Lady, has kept Tarisai isolated save for a group of revolving tutors and servants afraid to get too close as she prepares her daughter for a mysterious future.

At the age of eleven Tarisai finally learns The Lady’s plan when she is sent to compete for a spot on the Crown Prince’s Council of 11. Joining the Council will give Tarisai the family she has always craved. But it will also bring her one step closer to completing her mother’s magical request: killing the Crown Prince after Tarisai has earned his trust.

As Tarisai learns more about the empire, the Crown Prince, and herself she will have to decide where her loyalties lie and if she is strong enough to choose her own path in the face of her mother’s magical compulsion in Raybearer (2020) by Jordan Ifueko.

Find it on Bookshop.

Ifueko’s debut fantasy blends Nigerian folklore with a melange of other influences to create a multicultural world where colonization and imperialism inform the story as much as Tarisai’s own choices. Tarisai’s first person narration offers a limited perspective increasing suspense as she tries to guess The Lady’s motives.

Large scale but vague world building and a plot with far reaching elements beyond Tarisai’s immediate concerns make this story needlessly convoluted at times. Raybearer is a dense but promising standalone fantasy ideal for readers who prefer their magic with a strong dose of political intrigue.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Mirage by Somaiya Daud, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in an issue of School Library Journal*

The Candle and the Flame: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“She will be all right. Not right now but later, when it hurts a bit less, she will be all right.”

The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza AzadNoor is a city of many peoples and many cultures; a refuge for all who might need one. But it wasn’t always that way. This new city has only been able to flourish in the wake of a tragic attack by the Shaytateen–djinn who crave chaos–where they slaughtered everyone in the city save for three humans.

Fatima was one of those survivors and even now, eight years later, she is still haunted by the attack, what was lost, and what she had to do protect her sister and their adopted grandmother.

The city now exists in a tenuous peace ruled by a new maharajah who shares control of the city with Zulfikar, emir of the Ifrit–djinn who seek to create order and reason to counter the chaotic Shayateen–who protect the city.

When the Ifrit Name Giver is killed, Fatima finds herself transformed. No longer human, not quite djinn, she is now Fatima Ghazala–a young woman drawn into the city’s politics as outside threats and internal unrest threaten everything Noor represents and everything it could become in The Candle and the Flame (2019) by Nafiza Azad.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Candle and the Flame is Azad’s debut novel. This standalone fantasy is also a finalist for YALSA’s Morris Award for Excellence in Debut Fiction.

Vibrant descriptions immediately draw readers into Noor with multiple closer third person perspectives moving the story forward as Azad explores Fatima Ghazala’s transformation as well as the challenges facing both the city and its rulers.

Thoughtful explorations of trauma and consent set this novel apart as Fatima Ghazala works to come to terms with her past and what it means for who she has become. This struggle plays out in small things as Fatima Ghazala asserts her right to be referred to by her newly chosen name and on a grander scale as she carves out a place for herself both in Noor and among the Ifrit.

A gorgeous book with a swoon-worthy romance where the romantic leads meet as partners and allies before anything else; The Candle and the Flame is an evocative fantasy with lush writing and rich world building that explores themes of colonization and feminism. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhatena, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, The City of Brass by S. K. Chakraborty, A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst, We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, The Tiger at Midnight by Swati Teerdhala, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

The City of Brass: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The City of Brass by S. A. ChakrabortyNahri doesn’t believe in magic. She has fooled too many marks with her palm readings, zars, and healings on the streets of 18th century Cairo to put any real stock in the supposed power behind them–especially when she knows the research and tricks she puts in beforehand.

Everything Nahri believes, or doesn’t believe, about magic is thrown into question when one of her rituals works. Well, technically it all goes horribly wrong.

But the magic Nahri is pretending to perform is suddenly, shockingly real and summons a djinn warrior to her. Along with Dara, the fearsome Afhsin warrior, Nahri summons a world of trouble as she attracts the attention of a djinn world she never thought to imagine let alone believe in.

Torn away from everything she’s ever known, Nahri and Dara travel across the desert to find Daevabad, the mythical city of brass that holds answers about Nahri’s past and might be the only place that can offer her safety.

Inside the city Nahri finds unrest among the six djinn tribes and political intrigue on all sides. With no one to trust and nothing familiar, Nahri will have to tread carefully as she tries to find her way in a world where it seems everyone is eager to use her so long as she doesn’t learn any of her new lessons too quickly or too well in The City of Brass (2017) by S. A. Chakraborty.

The City of Brass is the first book in Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy. The story continues in The Kingdom of Copper.

The City of Brass is a wild ride. The high action and breakneck pacing of the opening scenes contrast interestingly with Chakraborty’s prose which is dense and heavy but also unbelievably evocative and steeped in carefully researched and beautifully reimagined djinn lore. The plot slows considerably once Nahri and Dara arrive in Daevabad allowing readers to instead focus on the large and varied cast of characters including Ali Qahtani, the young and often naive prince of the city’s current ruler.

Given the long life of djinn and the rich history of their city, it’s no surprise that The City of Brass is populated by a multi-faceted cast of characters. While Ali is eager to see the world in black and white, he soon realizes as political unrest grows that Daevabad operates in areas of gray. Chakraborty embraces this fact and uses it well to balance characters’ flaws alongside their positives and, in some cases, their charisma. It is a testament to Chakraborty’s characterization that Dara’s past is soaked in blood but he remains my absolute favorite character (aside from Nahri, of course).

The City of Brass is a lush, unforgettable story filled with determined characters who are all certain they’ll be the heroes of this tale even as history proves again and again that someone always has to be framed as the villain. Ideal for readers looking for non-western fantasies, charming con artists, and adventure. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks, The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury, The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories edited by Mahvesh Marad and Jared Shurin, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri, The Tiger at Midnight by Swati Teerdhala, Enchantée by Gita Trelease, The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

The Forbidden Wish: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“If you’re not free to love, you’re not free at all.”

cover art for The Forbidden Wish by Jessica KhouryZahra is one of the last shaitan, the most powerful of the jinn able to command all of the elements. Her power as a conjurer is unparalleled. But even that isn’t enough to save the queen who dared to befriend her. Instead her city is destroyed leaving Zahra trapped inside her lamp among the ruins she helped create.

Five hundred years pass until Aladdin finds her lamp and brings Zahra into a world where magic is forbidden and jinn are feared above all else.

When the King of the Jinn offers Zahra a chance to win freedom from her lamp, she draws Aladdin into a dangerous web of court politics and brewing rebellion to try and accomplish her task.

As Zahra comes closer to winning her freedom, she realizes that she has also grown closer to Aladdin. A human and a jinni can have no future together—not when their love is forbidden—but still Zahra cannot change her heart. In a world where every wish has a price, Zahra will have to decide if her freedom is worth the steep cost of her heart in The Forbidden Wish (2018) by Jessica Khoury.

The Forbidden Wish is a thoughtful and inventive retelling of a story you may think you already know inside and out.

Zahra’s narration is powerful and enthralling as she struggles to reconcile her position as a jinn with her own wants and desires. She holds no illusions about Aladdin. She has seen a thousand and one masters in her time and she expects Aladdin to be no better. But instead of a master and his jinni, Zahra is surprised to realize that Aladdin treats her as an equal–a shocking dynamic that plays out against a backdrop of political unrest and brewing rebellion as both Zahra and Aladdin are drawn into a princess’s fight to claim her throne.

When their dangerous friendship becomes something even stronger, Zahra has to confront the painful reality that her freedom might come at the cost of losing Aladdin forever. Zahra’s narrative is imbued with powerful feminist themes as she begins to understand that she has everything she needs to save herself without any bargains or rescue.

The Forbidden Wish is a lush and vibrant story that is as romantic as it is empowering. A must-read for fans of fairy tale retellings and nuance fantasy. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Bound by Blood and Sand by Becky Allen, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Becoming Jinn by Lori Goldstein, Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton, Ella, Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Rebel of the Sands: A Review

Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn HamiltonHappiness and freedom are hard things for a girl to find anywhere in Miraji–especially in Dustwalk. With her mother hanged and her father dead, there is nothing left to keep Amani tied to a town that would sooner her see her dead than independent.

After plotting her escape for months, Amani finally makes it out of Dustwalk in a flurry of gunfire accompanied by a mysterious foreigner who calls himself Jin. Desperate to get away at any cost, Amani accepts the risks of tying her interests to a man wanted for treason.

Turns out, getting out of Dustwalk was the easy part. With no one to trust and survival far from certain, Amani will have to confront hard truths about herself and her traveling companion Jin if she wants to stay alive in Rebel of the Sands (2016) by Alwyn Hamilton.

Rebel of the Sands is Hamilton’s debut novel and the start of a new series.

This book presents an interesting combination of western sensibilities (sharpshooters and horses and psuedo-cowboys, oh my!) blended with the Arabian mythology surrounding Djinn or Djinnis. With Dustwalk or the stark Miraji desert as a backdrop, this creates a setting that is at once evocative and atmospheric.

By contrast, the characters and plot fall decidedly flat. While readers are told a fair bit about Amani’s prowess with a gun as well as her spit-and-vinegar attitude, she remains one-dimensional for most of the story. Despite her first person narration, it’s difficult to identify with Amani let alone connect with her or her story in any meaningful way. The rest of the novel is filled with a cast that, while diverse, is similarly wooden often falling into obvious archetypes and tropes ranging from the power-hungry villain to the misunderstood henchman.

Being the first book in a series Rebel of the Sands also falls into the trap of providing too much setup without the story to back it up. A solid two thirds of the story does an admirable job of building the world and laying the groundwork for plot points sure to come later in the series which leads to a slow start to the story. The pacing issues are compounded by waiting until the final third of the book to introduce most of the major characters not to mention several major plot points.

Rebel of the Sands is an interesting interpretation of the western novel that deftly avoids some of the traps found in rehashing tasteless stereotypes and tropes of westward expansion. Unfortunately, a slow and predictable story do little to embellish this novel’s unique premise.

Rebel of the Sands is an interesting read for fans of westerns or fantasy novels featuring djinnis but is ultimately underwhelming as an exemplar of either sub-genre.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Nemesis by Anna Banks, Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

Exquisite Captive: A Review

Exquisite Captive by Heather DemetriosNalia is a powerful jinni from the world of Arjinna. After a deadly coup killed almost everyone she cared about, Nalia was captured by a slave trader who sells jinn to humans. Since then she has been on the dark caravan of the jinni slave trade for three years.

Trapped in Hollywood and bound to a handsome master who is as ruthless as he is powerful, Nalia is desperate for the chance to return to Arjinna and rescue her captive brother. Unfortunately, that seems nearly impossible while bound to her master and the bottle that can hold her prisoner.

When Nalia agrees to a dangerous bargain with the leader of Arjinna’s revolution she will have to decide if any price can be too high for her freedom and the chance to save her brother in Exquisite Captive (2014) by Heather Demetrios.

Exquisite Captive is the first book in Demetrios’ Dark Caravan trilogy.

This gritty urban fantasy has a lot going for it. The Hollywood setting, as well as the descriptions of Arjinna, are lush and immediately evocative. Although some of the situations are stilted, most of the story here is exciting and fast-paced.

Nalia herself is a strong and capable heroine. Unfortunately she is also in the middle of an extremely lopsided (read: forced) love triangle. On one side we have Nalia’s master Malek and on the other Raf–leader of the Arjinnan revolution. Raf often feels like a one-note character with his efforts to save his people and his strong convictions. Malek is more nuanced but decidedly less sympathetic as every bit of character development is countered with a new act of villainy. The romance, such as it is, with both men seems to come out of nowhere as feelings bloom suddenly (with varying levels of returned feelings) for all of the characters.

The well-realized world of Arjinna is sadly overshadowed by stiff descriptions and numerous explanations of djinni hierarchies and Arjinnan culture. While it is all valuable information, the sheer volume can be daunting and makes an already long story feel even lengthier.

However, Demetrios does still craft a refreshingly diverse story here (albeit with some unfortunate stereotypes creeping in–most notably with Sergei). With nods to Arabian culture and tons of action, Exquisite Captive is an interesting blend of traditional jinni lore and urban fantasy elements. It is sure to appeal to readers looking for the next big thing in paranormal romances.

Possible Pairings: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, Finnkin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, The Art of Wishing by Lindsay Ribar, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, The Fire Artist by Daisy Whitney

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the August 2014 issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen in various sites online*

The Amulet of Samarkand: A Banned Book Review

The Amulet of Samarkand coverThe Amulet of Samarkand (2003) is the first book in Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy. (Find it on Bookshop.) This trilogy has the unique honor of having been banned in its entirety for the books’ presentations of the occult. They also feature magnificent cover art by Melvyn Grant (who also has a ridiculously clever website). For many readers, that would be enticement enough. I didn’t know about the book banning, but the cover art and blurb pushed it onto my ever-increasing “to read” list. A recommendation from a trusted YA librarian pushed it over the top.

Nathaniel, one of the novel’s main characters, lives in London. Like most large cities, many of London’s movers and shakers are to be found in government positions of influence. What most people don’t know is that these powerful men and women get up to more than politicking when behind closed doors. They all have power, certainly, but very little (none depending on who you ask) belongs to them. Not permanently at least. Working in obscurity, under strict rules of engagement (with stricter punishments should something go awry), demons are the real power behind London’s elite.

Nathaniel is six when he is torn away from his birth parents and sent to live with his new master, another magician.

As in many fantasy novels, the power of naming plays an important role here. Demons are summoned with the knowledge of their real names. If you know the demon’s real name, you can control them. Similarly, if a demon learns the true name of a magician (in this case their given name) the demon has the same level of control. No magician knows their true name in order to avoid just that kind of problem.

By the age of eleven, Nathaniel has adjusted to his life as an apprentice and eagerly anticipates two events: the day when he will pick his name as a magician, and the day he will become a great magician, like his idol William Gladstone, remembered by all. Nathaniel does choose his name in due time, but his dream of greatness, is put into serious question when Simon Lovelace, a prestigious magician, publicly humiliates Nathaniel.

Enraged, Nathaniel bides his time learning spells and waiting until the day he will be ready to exact revenge. Enter Bartimaeus, the novel’s other main character, and a djinni with a fondness for footnotes in his first-person narration. Initially summoned as an instrument of revenge, Nathaniel soon learns that Bartimaeus is not easily contained.

When Nathaniel’s brilliant revenge becomes murder, espionage and conspiracy djinni and boy strike an uneasy detente to see if both of them can survive the machinations Bartimaeus has set in motion under Nathaniel’s orders.

The Amulet of Samarkand alternates viewpoints, sometimes being told in witty first-person by Bartimaeus (filled with references to his 5000 year career as a brilliant djinni), other times following Nathaniel in a third-person voice. Combined, the narrations make for an original fantasy that is witty and sharp.

More interesting, especially as the trilogy continues, is the dynamic between Nathaniel and Bartimaeus. While the djinni is more entertaining of the two, Nathaniel is often more compelling. Watching him mature from an innocent boy to a calculating magician in his own right, Stroud creates tension as readers are forced to wonder will Nathaniel be a villain or a hero by the end of the story?

Possible Pairings: The Demon Catchers of Milan by Kat Beyer, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, Rise of the Darklings by Paul Crilley, Exquisite Captive by Heather Demetrios, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, Death Note Tsugumi Ohba, Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, The Fire Artist by Daisy Whitney