Monday, July 8, 2019

The Candle and the Flame - Nafiza Azad

Title: The Candle and the Flame
Author: Nafiza Azad
Publisher: Scholastic Press, 2019 (Hardcover)
Length: 391 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: June 28, 2019
Finished: July 7, 2019

From the inside cover:

Fatima lives in the city of Noor, a thriving stop along the Silk Road. There the music of myriad languages fills the air, and people of all faiths thread their lives together. However, the city bears the scars of its recent past, when the chaotic tribe of Shayateen Djinn slaughtered its entire population - except for Fatima and two other humans. Now ruled by a new maharajah, Noor is protected from the Shayateen by the Ifrit, Djinn of order and reason, and by their commander, Zulfikar.

But when one of the most potent of the Ifrit dies, trouble brews and Fatima is changed in ways she cannot fathom, ways that scare even those who love her. Our in hand, Fatima is drawn into the intrigues of the maharajah and his sister, the affairs of Zulfikar and the Djinn, and the dangers of a magical battlefield.

Nafiza Azad weaves an immersive tale of extraordinary magic and the importance of names; fiercely independent women; enticing food; and, perhaps most importantly, the work for harmony within a city of a thousand religions, cultures, languages, and cadences.

This is honestly the first book that I've read in the past few months that has really captivated my attention. There's so many things I enjoyed here that I'm not sure where to start, but here goes...

Fatima lives in a world where supernatural creatures made of smoke and fire (but can also take human form) called djinn coexist with humans. There are several various types of djinn: the Shayateen and the Ghul pursue chaos and slaughter humans, the Ifrit seek order amidst the chaos and align with humans to help protect against the Shayateen. Fatima's biological and adopted family are killed by Shayateen attacks several years apart, leaving herself and her adopted sister Sunaina as the few surviving humans left in Noor. When the new maharajah takes power and people begin repopulating Noor from all over, Fatima begins to navigate the world of the Ifrit, and Fatima's world as she knows it begins to change in ways she never could've imagined.

The premise of this book is not ground-breakingly unique, but all its components work together to make it fresh and appealing. There's been a slew of Middle Eastern and Indian inspired YA fantasy lit in recent years, which is so welcome and needed in the market today, and this book can be counted in that group. Fatima's city of Noor is the optimistic poster child for cultural diversity. People of all languages, cultures, and religions all mesh together and coexist, to the point where Fatima herself participates in the cultures and religions not only of her native Islam, but also Hinduism, Sikhism, Shinto, and Buddhism. The diversity in the book is glorious, and I especially appreciate the author including a glossary at the back for the many, many times my ignorant brain needed to look up all the Arabic, Hindu, and Urdu vocabulary.

The female empowerment in this novel is amazing. Fatima begins the novel spunky and sure of herself, and emerges at the end just kicking ass and taking names (both literally and metaphorically, I can't extrapolate on the phrase due to spoilers). Sunaina holds her own in her own way, but not in the same trail-blazing way as her sister. Aruna and Bhavya also have satisfactory moments of female empowerment, but more on Bhavya a bit later.

Other little tidbits that I enjoyed: the fact that the novel opens with a heart-wrenching example of a mother's sacrifice for a child, that the plot takes its time to develop but, at least in my opinion, never feels boring, that the love between Zulfikar and Fatima is genuine and realistic despite the "insta-love" setup in the plot, and that you can see how much love and care went into this story.

The only negative aspect of this novel, at least in my opinion, is that some of the character development at the end of the story seems to come about rather abruptly. It's hard to believe that the maharajah, who we know to act when needed and can stand up to those who threaten his rule, would all of a sudden do the opposite. Its equally puzzling how Bhavya went from being a sheltered, meek princess fawning over Zulfikar one minute to literally ruling the country the next. I'm not saying the changes in the characters at the end would be completely impossible, but the lack of build-up to those changes just leaves the reader feeling disoriented by it all.

Just go read this, especially if you are intrigued by or drawn to more exotic fare than standard dragons and wizards in your fantasy, you won't be disappointed.

Thoughts on the cover:
Stunning. The illustration of Fatima's fire and the gorgeous colours just made me want to stare at this.

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