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April 2023 book review

The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi, by Shannon Chakraborty.

Warning, spoilers!

This book was a delight from start to finish, I had so much fun reading it. It's a swashbuckling romp that completely took me out of myself; I haven't felt such a feeling of complete escapism in ages, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's fast and it's vibrant, a high seas adventure which reminded me of how it felt to watch old films like Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. 

Amina Al-Sirafi is a tough, no-nonsense ex-pirate with a moral code and a tongue sharp as steel who has been cajoled into one last adventure over the high seas. She faces down sorcerers, leviathans, and demi-god ex-husbands who have amazing backsides. Her thirst for adventure and the horizon made me wish I could get up and go exploring too. Even so, Amina Al-Sirafi's internal struggles between returning to her ship - to the love of her life, the sea - and remaining safe and well for her daughter's sake, is a constant throughout the book and was incredibly convincing. Her fear of death and leaving her daughter unprotected, when in her youth she had been fearless, gave her an incredible vulnerability, and ferocity. 

Being introduced to the captain at this point in her life, resigned to retirement and sore knees in her middle age, was refreshing. I'm not middle aged but I've begun finding my own grey hairs and it's nice to feel that further adventure awaits. If my rambling hasn't made it obvious, Al-Sirafi's character was one of the highlights of the book for me.

Al-Sirafi's crew are likeable and well-rounded, with a real sense that they have a tangled history with their nakhudha of which we're only seeing the topmost strands. I can sense a hundred unpublished stories in the background, perhaps plastered to a wall in the author's house and connected by red string, which you can really feel just under the surface. Chakraborty's world, based in the historic Middle-East, is rich and alive, full of mysterious magics and references to real events; I felt like I learned something, or at the very least was inspired to go and read up on who the Franks actually were.

I did like the fantasy elements towards the end, the other world where the bird-people, the peri elite, rule, but honestly I could have spent way more time with the captain on her ship, visiting ports and getting up to hijinks. It's such a rich world on its own that I was a little blindsided by the addition of a second, which felt quite 'generic fantasy world' to me after the very pronounced character of the high seas. Its weirdness was a little jarring, although I imagine it was supposed to be as disconcerting for the reader as it was for Amina Al-Sirafi being washed up on its cow-eating shores.

Regardless, I can't wait for the next two books. Thanks to HarperVoyager for sending me the arc copy, which got thoroughly bashed around my bag in my own adventures overseas.


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