Imani always dreamed of becoming a Shield like her older brother Atheer. Shields are elite warriors who, after drinking misra tea, can wield magic to protect the kingdom of Qalia from all outside threats including manipulative djinni, horrific ghouls, and other monsters. Known for her metal affinity and skill with a dagger, Imani is one of the youngest Shields from the long-revered Beya clan. A clan that is shadowed by disgrace and grief in the wake of Atheer’s disappearance.
Caught stealing the coveted and carefully guarded misra spice, most people are ready to believe Atheer developed a magical obsession and, addicted to the misra, died shamefully in the Forbidden Wastes that surround Qalia. Imani has no reason to believe otherwise. Until a djinni named Qayn reveals that Atheer may be alive. And sharing the carefully guarded secret of the misra with outsiders–an offense that is punishable by death.
Desperate to find her brother before worse can befall him, Imani binds herself to Qayn in exchange for his promise to lead her across the Forbidden Wastes to Atheer. Traveling with Qayn and an expedition of other Shields including Taha–a beastseer and her longtime rival–will lead Imani to a world filled with secrets and betrayals that were previously beyond her comprehension in Spice Road (2023) by Maiya Ibrahim.
Spice Road is the first book in a trilogy and Ibrahim’s debut novel. With a world inspired by Arab cultures, all characters are cued as Arab with a variety of names, skin tones, and body types. At nearly five hundred pages, Spice Road is a sprawling series starter that takes its time to introduce readers to narrator Imani and her world.
Vivid descriptions and intense action sequences add drama to the story although the novel’s slow pace belies the urgency Imani feels to reach her brother. Slowly, as she sees beyond Qalia’s borders, Imani’s insular understanding of Qalia and its place in the world begins to expand leaving her to the often unpleasant work of unpacking her privilege both in Qalia and beyond. While this plot thread doesn’t always show Imani in the best light with her starting the novel ignorant of her privilege and unwilling to help outsiders, her development is well-drawn and her growth (mostly) earned as she learns more about the larger world and the way she wants to move through it.
With so much focus on Imani’s introspection, other characters are underutilized throughout the novel–especially Qayn who is a dynamic foil to Imani and Amira who pushes Imani to question her assumptions about Qalia even as she supports her older sister. As a rival with a vastly different ideaology, Taha plays opposite Imani in a will-they-or-won’t-they push and pull that is ultimately unsatisfying and further underscores Imani’s numerous bad choices. Imani is unwilling to trust Qayn because he is a djinni despite his staying true to his word at every turn. Instead, Imani assumes best intentions for Taha during almost the entirety of the novel despite his never reciprocating that trust or doing anything to meaningfully support Imani. It’s unclear if these three characters are meant to be positioned in a love triangle, but if they are Imani chose poorly in this volume.
Spice Road is the exciting start to a trilogy that tackles privilege and colonialism alongside sweeping adventure.
Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhathena, Mirage by Somaiya Daud, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, Year of the Reaper by Makiia Lucier, The Kinder Poison by Natalie Mae, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes