THE THEFT OF SUNLIGHT by Intisar Khanani (BOOK REVIEW)
Content warnings: ableism (including internalised); human trafficking including of children; discussions of abusive family relationships.
I did not choose this fate. But I will not walk away from it.
Children have been disappearing from across Menaiya for longer than Amraeya ni Ansarim can remember. When her friend’s sister is snatched, Rae knows she can’t look away any longer—even if that means seeking answers from the royal court, where her country upbringing and clubfoot will only invite ridicule.
Yet the court holds its share of surprises. There she discovers an ally in the foreign princess, who recruits her as an attendant. Armed with the princess’s support, Rae seeks answers in the dark city streets, finding unexpected help in a rough-around-the-edges street thief with secrets of his own.
But treachery runs deep, and the more Rae uncovers, the more she endangers the kingdom itself.
The Theft of Sunlight is set a little while after the events of Thorn, and although you don’t need to have read Thorn to jump straight in here as this is a new story with a new heroine, you will get a lot more out of a couple of the subplots if you are familiar with Thorn’s characters, as they form a significant part of the supporting cast. I definitely recommend at least reading the prequel short story The Bone Knife, which is in the back of the UK edition of Thorn – I think some aspects of the set up might be a little opaque without knowing Rae’s backstory and I really wish that story had been included here rather than in a different book. Anyway, it’s worth tracking down if you find the opening to The Theft of Sunlight a little confusing (and you’ll only benefit from reading Thorn if you haven’t already!). Where Thorn was a reworking of The Goose Girl fairytale, this is not a retelling, but an expansion of the world that really adds depth to an already interesting setting.
Regardless of whether you’ve read anything else in this world, it’s easy to fall in love with Rae’s practical, go-getting attitude, and her determination to help everyone. She’s a little naïve about the courtly world and the realities of city life, which leads to some sticky situations, but I think anyone who loves a fiercely kind and principled Tamora Pierce-ish heroine will find plenty to like about Rae. I loved her friendship with cheeky thief Bren, and it was great to see Alyrra, the heroine of Thorn, again – in fact, I don’t think there was a single character here I didn’t find compelling, even the ones I didn’t like!
I adore a court-adjacent fantasy, and this is a great one – I loved Rae’s fish-out-of-water view of all the decadence and plotting. But as well as all the glamour, this story does tackle some dark subjects, with Rae’s main quest being tracking down the perpetrators of a human trafficking operation, and the contrast works really well to highlight what’s wrong with both the court and the city. I loved how Rae’s investigations involved so much actual work – so often a main character can stumble across things by coincidence to further the plot, but Rae actually has to use her brain here, and I really enjoyed her smarts and the glimpses into the way the kingdom is run (you know I’m a sucker for some good statecraft).
The pace is nice and quick, and there’s always something going on even when Rae’s hit a block in her investigations, so even though this is over 500 pages, it was a really fast read for me as I was just so engrossed. I read it for the first time in a sleep-deprived haze in the middle of the night when my baby was a few weeks old, and because I was reading the ebook I didn’t notice the end of the book creeping nearer; when I hit the phenomenal cliffhanger, it took everything I had not to shout ‘NO’ aloud and wake the baby. I am desperate for the next book! And I’m so glad that Hot Key have picked it up in the UK – I’m keeping my fingers crossed for those of you elsewhere that the sequel will be available for you soon.
Intisar Khanani is fast becoming one of my favourite YA writers. Her work is so intelligent and kind, and she has a real knack for drawing a living, breathing society. I’ve mentioned Tamora Pierce in this review already, but if you’re looking for more court fantasy in that line, books that centre justice and humanity amidst their adventure, you really need to read this (and Thorn too).