I really didn’t know much about this book and I only became interested because of that gorgeous cover and the vague idea that it’s based on Muslim culture. But what happened between the pages of this really surprised me and I can say confidently that it’s been a while since that has happened in a YA fantasy.
I’m not usually someone who looks for atmospheric world building but am more satisfied by extensive magic systems, but this world of Noor really blew my mind. The author brings this beautiful city to life through her words and I was completely mesmerized and felt myself a part of it every step of the way. Every little thing like the food, the culture, the faith, the customs, the clothes are explained in their glorious detail and I lapped it all up. The supernatural element of the Djinn, their way of life and especially the significance of their naming was explained wonderfully and I really enjoyed their story. Even the differences between the various clans of the Djinn, their inherent natures of order and chaos are told through different perspectives, so we as a reader can decide what we feel about them. The author also does a spectacular job showing us how a true multicultural city feels like, with its amalgamation of cultures and people, everyone living in harmony, preserving their own cultures while also sharing it with others. I don’t think I’ve really read about a more amazing place before and Noor is going to be one of my favorite fantasy worlds for the foreseeable future. But above it all, my favorite part of this book was the inherent desi-ness of it. The author doesn’t shy away from extensively using Hindi and Urdu words to describe every facet which totally delighted me – I could smell the food and picture the gorgeous saris and ghagras and experience the joy of celebrating Deepavali.
This book is full of amazing characters, especially the women and I can’t talk enough about them. Fatima Ghazala has seen a lot of loss in her life, but she is ready to brave more to ensure the protection of her family and the people of her city. She may just be an ordinary citizen who has discovered her latent powers, but that doesn’t mean she will ever let anyone else make decisions for her or let go of her self esteem. I was in awe of her strength even in the most desperate of times. Her sister Sunaina is conflicted about Fatima’s newfound abilities which leads to some strain in their relationship but I liked the way they worked for it, and never let each other go. The Alif sisters and their parents are like found family and I absolutely adored their bond. The sisters bring much needed levity to this story with their hilarious bickering and banter, and their parents become defacto parents for Fatima and Sunaina, always making sure they are taken care of.
On the other hand Princess Bhavya is living in a gilded cage and all she wants is the freedom to live her life. While she came across as unlikable initially, we slowly get to know her better and realize all her petulance is only a defense mechanism. Her brother Aarush, the maharajah of Noor is a good person but not a natural leader. I could sympathize with him a bit, but couldn’t absolve him of his indecisiveness. Zulfikar is the Emir of Noor and representative of the Ifrit, and he is definitely a responsible leader but pretty stoic, and I didn’t feel like I got to know him much.
The romance between Fatima Ghazala and Zulfikar felt both like instalove and not, the bond between them borne out of magic and holding a lot of uncertain feelings on both sides – it took a long time for them to trust each other with their feelings and I loved this dynamic between them. There is a lot of push and pull, a developing friendship, forced proximity due to their responsibilities – I loved how all these tropes were executed so beautifully together.
This is a very slow paced politics driven fantasy, with hardly any action but I slowly fell in love with it. Despite there being rebellion and traitors in the royal court, I loved how the author subverted these usual fantasy tropes. The purpose of this story is not to find who the villains are (they are pretty obvious), but to let us think about what it means to be a leader, a King. We see how competent and decisive women can’t rule the kingdom because of misogynistic rules but an unwilling man remains King, whose inability to make personal sacrifices and be decisive may spell doom for his people. We also see how faith is described as just a part of the daily life of the characters, and not something that separates them from the others. The ownvoices Muslim representation is spot on and I appreciated how much Fatima’s daily prayers are as much a part of her as are her powers. This book is all about women – their love and friendships, their need for freedom and to be able to make choices, to not feel objectified or treated as a possession. We also see the manifestation of all kinds of female strength, both alone and in numbers, physically and in their silences – and this is what elevates this book to more than just a typical YA fantasy. I also particularly enjoyed the discussions around the value of a found family, the importance of forgiveness, and the choice to make sacrifices for the sake of others.
This is a very quiet kind of fantasy novel. We have court politics, rebels and supernatural creatures, but it is more about the humans, their lives and the choices they make everyday. If you are looking for a slow paced, very atmospheric fantasy novel with ownvoices Muslim representation and lots of desi elements, then this book is perfect for you. This may not be action packed, but it will definitely make you feel and think and hope.