THE ADVENTURES OF AMINA AL-SAFIRI by Shannon Chakraborty (BUDDY READ BOOK REVIEW)
Before we get to the review, a quick note from us here at the Hive.
The Fantasy Hive are in support of the Harper Collins Union strike and support their rights.
However as book reviewers we also don’t want authors to miss out and feel they deserve reviews. Therefore we have decided to continue supporting their authors.
Nils and Beth are back with another buddy read book review.
This time round, one of their most anticipated books of the year! It’s been a long wait, will it be worth it?
Amina al-Sirafi should be content. After a storied and scandalous career as one of the Indian Ocean’s most notorious pirates, she’s survived backstabbing rogues, vengeful merchant princes, several husbands, and one actual demon to retire peacefully with her family to a life of piety, motherhood, and absolutely nothing that hints of the supernatural.
But when she’s tracked down by the obscenely wealthy mother of a former crewman, she’s offered a job no bandit could refuse: retrieve her comrade’s kidnapped daughter for a kingly sum. The chance to have one last adventure with her crew, do right by an old friend, and win a fortune that will secure her family’s future forever? It seems like such an obvious choice that it must be God’s will.
Yet the deeper Amina dives, the more it becomes alarmingly clear there’s more to this job, and the girl’s disappearance, than she was led to believe. For there’s always risk in wanting to become a legend, to seize one last chance at glory, to savor just a bit more power…and the price might be your very soul.
The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi is expected for release on 28th February 2023 in the US, 2nd March in the UK,
and is available to pre-order:
US – Bookshop.org | UK – Waterstones
All quotes used are taken from an early ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
What were you expecting going into this one?
Beth: After absolutely loving the Daevabad trilogy, I couldn’t wait to explore a new world from Chakraborty. I think she’s become an auto-buy author for me, but also, because I’d read Daevabad with you Nils, I was very much looking forward to buddy reading her again.
Nils: I felt the same, we had such a blast reading Daevabad together and Chakraborty is wonderful at creating stories and characters which hold enough depth and nuance to discuss in great detail, doesn’t she? They’re always so three dimensional.
I was very much hyped for Amina Al-Sirafi, I’d been hearing about this book for over a year through Chakraborty’s Instagram page and every bit of it sounded like something I’d absolutely love. I wasn’t wrong.
Beth: She’d been teasing us for quite some time! The tantalising little bits Chakraborty had been sharing about her new book, the extracts and art on instagram etc, really got me excited – I love a nautical/piratical fantasy, and Chakraborty was setting it in the Middle East, in the middle ages, with older protagonists and a female m/c. It was just everything that was ticking my boxes and after Daevabad and The Stardust Thief, I wanted to read more fantasy set in the Middle East inspired by mythology and folklore from that part of the world.
Nils: I actually haven’t read any nautical fantasy books, or none which I can recall, so this was something new to me. Yet the idea of Amina being this infamous gutsy female pirate putting her crew back together for an adventure ticked all my boxes. I also knew it would feature themes of motherhood, cultural identity, and that it would be set in the Middle East with an ethnically diverse cast, so I was even more excited.
What are our first impressions?
Beth: Straight off the bat I knew this wasn’t going to let me down. Before we get to chapter one, we have a note from our narrator about the text we’re about to read, and I absolutely loved that.
Nils: Same! The opening line begins with “In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate” and for our narrator to be unapologetically a person who holds such strong faith, thoroughly warmed me.
Beth: Yes, that’s such a great point! I’m so used to reading fantasy religions that are quite often based on Christianity; the only other fantasy I’ve read which includes the Muslim faith is Daevabad!
I really enjoy framed narratives and taking into account the voice of the narrator as a character in of themself. As narrators go, they made me feel in perfectly safe hands, and throughout the story there are little breaks where our narrator interacts with our protagonist whose story they’re telling, and it just lifted the whole experience for me.
Nils: I agree, having a framed narrative worked perfectly for this book, it added character and set the tone for the story which was about to unfold. It compelled me to dive right in. Get it, dive?!! Beth, how many nautical puns can we add???
Beth: Nils. No.
Nils: It has to be done!!
Beth: Stop making a splash
Nils: Aye, aye!
Beth: But going back to first impressions, the narrator’s note sets us up perfectly for a story of a woman who doesn’t allow age and motherhood to hold her back. When we actually meet Captain Amina al-Sirafi in the first chapter, she’s witty, she suffers no fools, and she leads us straight into action. It was such an exciting beginning, wasn’t it Nils!
Nils: Absolutely! As soon as we meet Amina we realise how capable, strong willed, defiant and protective she is. Her first scene we see her facing a demon to save two witless teenagers from being devoured. Her legendary exploits certainly ring true and her personality fits the tales told about her, even if they are a little exaggerated. You know what I really wasn’t expecting though? The humour! The banter! As much as I love books which can make me cry, I’m also a sucker for ones which make me laugh. Chakraborty has shown she excels at both. Amina and her motley crew made me laugh beginning to end.
Beth: I was expecting great banter and dialogue, but you’re right, I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so funny!
“She looks like a giant.” His companion squeezed my bicep. “ By God, woman. What do you eat to be built like some sort of warhorse?”
This time they hit me hard enough that I shut up.
I was a bit disappointed there wasn’t a map in the arc! I had the UK version, and it’s absolutely gorgeous, with beautiful illustrations of waves between each chapter. But it says map to come and I’m gutted because I know it’s going to be something beautiful and intricately illustrated or something. I swear, this is how they get reviewers to still buy the book even after they’ve had an arc. I’ve gone ahead and pre-ordered the signed exclusive Waterstones edition…
It will help to have a map reading this one though. I made a google map and saved the various locations mentioned!
Nils: I had a beautiful US ARC which included the illustration of waves too and of a ship, I’m guessing Amina’s ship the Marawati, above each chapter number. However, I really wanted a map too, I wanted to visualise how far our characters had travelled and spot where they were headed next.
Beth really helped by showing me pictures of all the locations she could find, they looked beautiful and looked like they held such charm.
Beth: “Ok Chakraborty must be exaggerating here, her descriptions make this place sound –googles– wow no ok her descriptions are spot on”
Let’s discuss the characters!
Beth: Not to throw any dispersions on any other aspect of Chakraborty’s writing, as they most definitely do not deserve any, but her characters are hands down absolutely the best aspect of any of her books and The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi continue that tradition!
Nils: Very true! I always instantly fall for Chakraborty’s characters too and I knew Amina would be no exception after I read this:
“People have this idea of mothers, that we are soft and gentle and sweet. As though the moment my daughter was laid on my breast, the phrase I would do anything did not take on a depth I could have never understood before. This woman thought to come into my home and threaten my family in front of my child?
She must not have heard the right stories about Amina al-Sirafi.”
I love seeing fiercely protective mothers, and a large part of Amina’s motives are to keep her daughter, Marjana, safe.
Beth: I loved what Chakraborty did here. The narrator’s note painted a picture of a fearsome pirate who sailed the seas making enemies in every port, tricking authorities, and living a successful life on the high seas. What we see now is an Amina who has retired, is living in the arse-end of nowhere with her mother and daughter, keeping her head as low as possible to hide her daughter from the various dangers created from such a colourful life. Her honesty immediately captivated me. She is fiercely protective of her daughter, and when she’s forced back to a life on the sea, that’s the key driving force. But I loved her willingness to accept that actually, there’s a part of her that wants to go back, that has missed being a nakhudda (captain). Mothers can only be motherly – I love how Chakraborty challenged this.
Nils: Beth you’ve echoed a lot of the same thoughts I had regarding Amina’s character, but I’d like to add, and I know this is something we discussed on WhatsApp, that as a female POC character it was fantastic to see she was a woman who allowed herself to desire men, to feel lust, and make no apologies for it. Chakraborty challenged the male gaze and represented the female gaze, where we too can enjoy the same kind of pleasures as men do.
Beth: Ooh yes, we discussed this a lot didn’t we! For me, it was great seeing an older female character, a mother, expressing her desires to the reader. She described the men she came across by their appearance and whether she found them attractive or not. We’re used to female characters in fantasy books only ever being described by whether or not they’re pretty, so I loved the way Amina applied this to new men she came across!
The first couple of chapters we meet Amina and her family, and once she’s been tasked with the main objective of the plot, what follows is a Getting the Gang Back Together montage, and it’s a trope I bloody love. As Nils mentioned above, the cast was diverse and that was fascinating to follow. I thought Chakraborty did an incredible job representing just how many different peoples and faiths were living and operating around the coast of the Indian Ocean – how that part of the ocean drew so many people together.
Nils: Chefs kiss to Chakraborty for representing different faiths, nationalities and ethnicities without having prejudice amongst them. Amina’s crew come from all walks of life but they are all so accepting and respectful of their differences.
Beth: I don’t think there was a single character I disliked. Our main characters are Amina’s crew: first mate Tinbu, Mistress of Poisons Dalila, and Father of Maps Majed. There’s a ship’s cat, Payasam, who frankly we do not get enough of. Of the crew, Dalila was hands down my favourite. She is hilarious, mysterious, and eccentrically dangerous. On the outside she seems quite gruff and independent, but you can see there are deep undercurrents (happy Nils?) of hurt.
Nils: I have such fondness for the whole crew too. Tinbu our first mate, is a gifted archer but has a knack for getting into trouble. Dalila, my beloved Mistress of Poisons has a reputation for experimenting and blowing things up, but she is a gem and Beth I would happily sail the seas with her. Albeit with one eye constantly upon her! Majed, our talented Father of Maps never steers the crew wrong and he’s so endearingly loyal. Payasam is one adorably useless cat.
Beth mentioned her favourite trope above so I’ll say one of mine: found families. Together this crew all make the best found family, don’t they?
Beth: Argh yes found families! Amina and Majed have their own families that depend upon them, but they also have their family of the crew, and Amina’s blindness to how they see her as family was something beautiful to watch her overcome.
Nils: That was definitely a highlight for me too. Shall we talk about Raksh? I know Raksh is a character who we can’t say much about for spoilery reasons but he was certainly one of our favourites! Morally grey, cheeky, will happily run away from a fight and leave you in the shit and never shy to ask for sex, Raksh was a character who was consistently entertaining!
Beth: He was absolutely hilarious and certainly had a healthy, um, appetite. (I wouldn’t count this as a spicy read, Chakraborty does the whole “draws the curtains” thing)
We should definitely talk about Chakraborty’s villain. Falco Palamenestra is a Frank who has kidnapped the scholarly daughter of one of Amina’s crewmates. After building Amina up as a fearsome, borderline villainous character herself, Chakraborty needed someone evil enough to be a convincing adversary, and I think she really blew us out of the water with this one. There were moments, when Falco was discussing his past, that I thought perhaps we’re going to get a complicated villain who we can reluctantly sympathise with… and then he went batshit.
Nils: Falco is villainous in an unnerving quiet way. At first he comes across as a reasonable, charming man, one who has a vision of a world where he’s not forced into the Holy crusades, he actually seems noble. It’s easy to forget the atrocities he’s committed yet it isn’t long until we see his true desire is, like most men during that time period, power. His words are nothing but sugar coated lies.
As Amina herself said:
“I genuinely could not tell if Falco wanted to seduce me, hire me, or cut my throat and hang me in the cave to perform nefarious magic with my blood.”
Beth: He represented that Western white male power of controlling narratives and the evil that can be accomplished just with the power of words and persuasion and coercion. He was a very clever villain.
We’ve skirted around some of the themes, so let’s go into those in more detail.
I wanted to teach my daughter ro read the waves, and the night sky, to see her eyes widen with wonder and curiosity when I took her to new places, new cities. I wanted to give her all that I’d had to take, positioning her to enjoy opportunities I could never imagine.
Beth: So yeah, motherhood’s a big one!
Nils: Yes, motherhood and that guilt of wanting to be more than a mother and retain a part of yourself is strong throughout.
“Our hearts may be spoken for by those with sweet eyes, little smiles, and so very many needs, but that does not mean that which makes us, us, is gone.
And I hope… part of me hopes anyway that in seeing me do this, Marjana knows more is possible. I would not want her to believe that because she was born a girl, she cannot dream.”
I love how Chakraborty illustrates that in women following their dreams, doing what makes them happy, keeping their identity, is inspiring their children to do the same, to be strong. Especially their young girls.
Beth: Maternal guilt is something I’ve suffered a great deal with, I don’t think any mother is immune to it. I found myself really relating to Amina through this particular shared experience, and I really appreciated Chakraborty exploring these emotions and representing them.
Amina’s not the only mother in the story, and her version of motherhood isn’t the only one either. I thought Chakraborty did a great job exploring the different ways people can be mothers, can be there for their families. Being a physical presence at home is one thing, protecting and nurturing, but sometimes a part of that process is knowing when to step away also. Understanding that your child has myriad needs. I found Amina’s arguments with her own mother fascinating in that regard. But like you say above, one of my favourite messages here was what we tell our daughters. What we give them, how we can help them find their identities.
Nils: In fact the theme of identity is also prominent throughout as many of the characters are not always what they first appear to be. You see Amina might be a fierce captain but she’s gentle and fair to those she holds dear, Dalila appears cold hearted and hot tempered but there’s a sense of loneliness beneath, and Dunya, who is the granddaughter, and daughter of an old crew member, who Amina is sent to rescue, struggles with the confinement and expectations of her family versus who she really wants to be. What is so alluring about being aboard Amina’s Marawati is that everyone is free to express their real identity.
Beth: It makes me think of the stories we tell about ourselves and how they hold up to the reality of ourselves. For example how Amina tells herself she never visited Dalila because it was safer for all involved that way and Dalila doesn’t need her anyway, when actually she couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Stories do that, don’t they, branching out like a sapling searching for sunlight? By the time centuries have passed and that sapling is a mighty tree, there are more branches than can be counted, sprawling in widely different directions.
I think the power of stories was an interesting thread. Falco had hunted Amina down on the power of the stories he’d heard about her. I loved the exploration of the role of stories in society, how they can shape expectations, how they can be used for different purposes. How important it is who gets to tell the stories.
Those of us who make the sea our home carry libraries in our head; a fact I have tried to impress upon many a land-dwelling intellectual. The scholars who travel the world to study could learn just as much if they would speak to the sailors, porters, and caravan hands who ferry them and their books to such faraway lands.
And of course, all this is wrapped up in a story being told to a narrator in turn relaying it to us, just like in Chakraborty’s metaphor of the spreading branches above.
What about Chakraborty’s inclusion of mythology and magic?
Beth: This is going to sound mad, but I wasn’t expecting a great deal of magic this time around? I thought there’d be a sea monster or two, but that would be it. I’m not sure why. So, whereas there isn’t anywhere near the levels of magic we saw in Daevabad, I was pleasantly surprised by how much magic there was! I thought Chakraborty balanced it so well; that it’s a very human story that magic encroaches into.
Nils: I was glad to see some familiar Arabic mythological figures from Daevabad in this novel too though , one in particular made me smile!
Beth: Yes! There are some lovely surprises!
Nils: However, going back to the theme of stories, I love that a lot of the mythology and fantastical aspects in this book change throughout as the truth behind their origins is revealed. You see Amina’s mission goes from finding kidnapped Dunya to also finding a fabled artefact, one with enough power to cause catastrophic consequences. Yet with every story revealed about this artefact we learn that it is very less romanticised than what early scholars had recorded.
Beth: I’m trying to step carefully so as not to spoil anything! But I loved all the snippets of story behind the artefact, they were a brilliant addition.
Chakraborty includes an Author’s Note and Further Reading, which was a lovely insight into her basis of research that led to wanting to tell this story. It was very much a focus on the mundane human lives around the Indian Ocean, so of course it’s only natural that the stories of those places would work their way into this one. We all build upon the stories that came before us. Chakraborty mixes real historical figures and elements of Arabian mythology to create myths and stories in her own world.
Nils: Her passion for Arabian history and mythology really shines through. I love how Amina’s character was also a feminist version of Sinbad the Sailor.
Beth: There is of course a sea monster, as per the US cover. I thought it such an imaginative mix of kraken and scorpion, it sounded truly horrifying! When it first turned up, Chakraborty really ramped up the tension, it was so ominous!
What were your overall impressions of the book?
Nils: Chakraborty has worked her magic once again and delivered an epic feminist tale quite like no other. This is a story which celebrates being a mother who longs for more, it is a celebration of faith and a stark reflection upon the atrocities committed by Western invaders.
This novel is filled with passion and heart.
Yet at its core this is a phenomenally entertaining read with the most loveable ragtag seafaring crew.
Beth: Chakraborty cementing herself as one of the best storytellers of our time. On the face of it, a swashbuckling adventure filled with daring rescues and magic. But as Nils says, there’s so much thought-provoking depth, perspectives to consider, representations that don’t get shared enough.
This is a story of page-burning action, mysticism and magic, and so much heart.
I also really appreciated that this works as a standalone story, it has a satisfying resolution; but Chakraborty has left the odd door ajar should she want to return. And I sincerely hope we can.
Beth: Chakraborty’s writing is just divine! There were so many lines I sent to you Nils! Whether they’d made me laugh out loud, or whether I found them particularly thought-provoking, or just that they were so beautiful. After the Daevabad trilogy I considered Chakraborty a great story-teller, but this book has certainly elevated her even higher.
She took one look at me, inhaled like an arrow being drawn back, and shouted, ‘Have you lost your mind?’
I would not want her to believe that because she was born a girl, she cannot dream
For the greatest crime of the poor in the eyes of the wealthy has always been to strike back. To fail to suffer in silence and instead disrupt their lives and their fantasies of a compassionate society that coincidentally set them on top. To say no.
(there are so many more quotes I’d include if I could Nils!!!)
Nils: Yes Beth, Chakraborty’s prose is so superbly crafted. I’ve shared quite a few quotes already but here are two more that really made me think.
“It is a difficult thing to destroy your child’s innocence. To tell her the mother she adores is not the “best mama in the world,” but a real person who has done terrible, unforgivable things.”
And this quote is so damn powerful:
“We are the women in the streets the others watch from behind their screens.
Accordingly, we are often granted less honor, our bodies assumed to be available for the right price or simply invisible. I have cast a judgmental eye straight back, dismissing the rich women behind the screens as pampered dolls.”
The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi is expected for release on 28th February 2023 and is available to pre-order:
US – Bookshop.org | UK – Waterstones
All quotes used are taken from an early ARC and are subject to change upon publication.