ARC Review: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed


It’s August in Paris and 17-year-old Khayyam Maquet—American, French, Indian, Muslim—is at a crossroads. This holiday with her professor parents should be a dream trip for the budding art historian. But her maybe-ex-boyfriend is probably ghosting her, she might have just blown her chance at getting into her dream college, and now all she really wants is to be back home in Chicago figuring out her messy life instead of brooding in the City of Light.
Two hundred years before Khayyam’s summer of discontent, Leila is struggling to survive and keep her true love hidden from the Pasha who has “gifted” her with favored status in his harem. In the present day—and with the company of a descendant of Alexandre Dumas—Khayyam begins to connect allusions to an enigmatic 19th-century Muslim woman whose path may have intersected with Alexandre Dumas, Eugène Delacroix, and Lord Byron.
Echoing across centuries, Leila and Khayyam’s lives intertwine, and as one woman’s long-forgotten life is uncovered, another’s is transformed.


Despite following the author for a long time on Twitter, I have actually never read her books before. Internment has been on my tbr for a long time but it intimidates the hell out of me and I’m just so scared to read it. But when I saw the blurb for this one, I just knew this was my type of book and I had to read it immediately. And it was amazing.


Even though I mostly read fantasy or romance novels, I am actually very fond of books which have a lot of archeological, historical or artsy elements. I usually find these favorite aspects in my adventure novels, so it was actually very refreshing to see a literary/art history related mystery in a YA novel. I’ve never been to Paris but it’s a dream destination of mine, and the setting here in the book was so vivid and lush that I felt transported, but also sad that i haven’t been there already. I also liked that the author takes us to those places in Paris which are not the main tourist attractions – we only get a single mention of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower doesn’t even get that – but we see the charm in the places which only the locals would know. And the way the author interconnected the stories of Alexandre Dumas, Eugène Delacroix and Lord Byron with the plot of this book was genius and it’s a great feeling to be exploring the lives of such great artists who have left indelible impressions on us. The writing style is equal parts endearing and poetic and beautiful, and I just found myself lost within the words – it was a mesmerizing experience that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.


The main theme of the book is about stories – how we all have a story to tell, how the past and present and future are all connected, and an examination into who finally gets their stories told and who are lost to history. We get a very critical look into how women and their accomplishments have been forgotten or deliberately suppressed for ages now, and how it’s important to not let that happen anymore. History is always being rewritten as we go along, because we uncover new facts or alternate POVs which change the context, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that the women and marginalized people whose stories were lost get a chance to voice their truth. And all these discussions happen very organically between the characters within the novel and I thought the author did a marvelous job highlighting the importance of giving women the agency to tell their own stories.


I will not say I was completely in love with our main character Khayyam. I definitely admired her love for art history, her desire to prove herself and the earnestness with which she proceeded to bring Leila’s story to light. She is also torn between her multiple identities – Muslim, American, French, Indian – and it was fascinating to see her grow more comfortable in her own skin as the book goes on. But she is also a teenage girl who is attracted to two boys and is conflicted about whom to choose, especially because none of them are perfect – I had to actually remind myself repeatedly not to judge her through my adult gaze. Her parents are professors and I absolutely adored them, and their relationship with her. Total parental goals and these are the kind of adult figures we don’t often see in YA, so that was a nice change.

In the past, Leila is a woman of the harem who is not allowed any freedom or privacy, but she is a formidable woman who takes matters into her own hands and decides to carve her own path. It’s a story mired in tragedy but also immense strength, and every step of getting to know her was a joy. Her story also plays such an integral part in Khayyam’s character development, and I commend the author for the beautiful way she wove their narratives together.


In conclusion, this was a powerful story of two young Muslim women across centuries trying to carve their own path in life despite all the obstacles, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. If like me, you are a fan of books that combine an engaging story with historical elements, or if you are an art/literary history nerd, I think this book is perfect for you. It has an interesting mystery, flawed but relatable characters and a love of art that permeates the pages. It gave me a lot of joy while reading and I hope it does the same for you too.

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PS: Thank you to Soho Teen and Edelweiss for providing me with this advance copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.

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