Amina al-Sirafi, #1: The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi
By: Shannon Chakraborty
Published: February 28, 2023
Genre: Historical Fantasy, Folklore Retelling, Adventure, Pirates
I received an advanced copy of this book (Goodreads Giveaway & NetGalley) in exchanged for an honest review.
Yes! “That” Captain Amina al-Sirafi. The smuggler, the pirate. The blasphemer that men of letters accuse of serving up human hearts for her seabeast husband, and the sorceress—for she “must” be a sorceress, because no female could sail a ship so deftly without the use of forbidden magics—whose appearance somehow both beguiles and repulses. Traders along our fair shores warn against speaking her name as though she is a djinn that might be summoned as such—though, strangely, they have little compunction when it comes to spreading vicious rumors about her body and her sexuality: these things that men obsess over when they hate what they desire and what they cannot possess, (A Word on What is to Come).
One of the universal possessions of humanity are the stories that are told, shared, collected, and repeated throughout our existence. Some of these tales we hear as young children, others we learn about in school and/or in places of religious worship, some in books and in visual representations, etc. These stories become a part of our lives as they influence our imaginations and our curiosities about the past, the present, and the future. Then, we grow older, and we recall these tales in passing, until we hear of a new story which reignites our love and our familiarity for the stories we’ve heard before. Shannon (S.A.) Chakraborty brought back our love of djinn in her Daevabad series. Now, she reintroduces us to another tale from Arabian Nights with her retelling of Sinbad with The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi.
The protagonist in this book is Amina al-Sirafi, the infamous nakhudha of the ship, Marawati. After 15 years of pirating and traveling, Amina has spent the last 10 years living in quiet solitude with her family, including her daughter, Marjana. Amina has gotten used to living the quiet life, but she keeps her ears open for any gossip nearby. After one rumor leads Amina to rescuing 2 curious boys from a magical being, rumors about her reemergence reaches a wealthy and a powerful individual with ties to Amina’s pirating past. Sayyida Salima is the mother of Asif, one of Amina’s former crewmates, and grandmother of Dunya, Asif’s daughter. Now that Salima has Amina’s attention, she has a proposition—a.k.a. blackmail—for Amina: rescue Dunya from a ruthless mercenary, a Frank named Falco Palamenestra, and she will be rewarded, very handsomely. Of course, Amina cannot do this alone—she doesn’t even have the Marawati anymore. She’ll need to round up who’s left of her “old” crew. First, is Dalila, the “Mistress of Poisons”; one of Amina’s closest friends, who is known for her knowledge of explosives and (poisonous) plants. Next, is Tinbu; Amina’s former First Mate who has been the Marawati’s nakhudha since her retirement. Tinbu’s knowledge and maintenance of ships makes him a highly valuable crewmate. Last, is Majed, the “Father of Maps”; whose knowledge of maps—particularly nautical ones—is the best. Not to mention, Majed can’t help being lured out to sea, again. Amina has her most trusted companions with her again as they all come out of retirement for an opportunity for riches and for adventure, right? They are all more experienced and more cautious than they were when they were younger. However, the adventure and their notoriety are just as dangerous and as massive as it was during their prime. Can Amina, her old and her new crew complete the task forced upon them? Will they be lucky enough to return home alive and to their families once again?
There are 2 plots in this novel, and they are the main storylines of this entry of this series. The first plot is Amina returning to her pirating life after retiring from it years ago. She is one of the few nawakhidha who survived long enough to retire. Yet, the temptation of the offer is “too good to be true,” so she rounds up her most skilled and her most trustworthy members of her old crew, and they go off on a new adventure. Throughout the voyage, Amina, Dalila, Tinbu, and Majed comment on how retirement was “boring,” and they have the experience to be successful on this quest. However, they understand 2 things. One, they are older so they cannot perform the same way they did 10-15 years ago. Two, most of the crew—especially Amina and Majed—must survive this voyage because they have families who need them. The second plot in this novel focus on the mission Amina and her crew are on. While all of them are tempted by the fortune Salima is willing to pay for the safe return of her granddaughter, Dunya, a few things don’t sit right with Amina and the crew. First, was Dunya kidnapped as her grandmother believes? If Dunya is anything like her late father, Asif, then maybe this teenaged girl decided to go on an adventure before she has to fulfill her “duties” as a female of her station. Second, Amina and her “original” crew went their separate ways after disbanding. It makes sense how Amina was able to locate her crew, but how was Salima able to find her? Even more concerning is the revelation that Falco Palamenestra was searching for Amina, too. Why are nobles and foreigners looking for a criminal as infamous as Amina? There are 2 subplots in this novel, and both of them are essential to the plots (not to mention, they could become more relevant in the future books in this series). The first subplot is the role of magic in this novel. From what the audience knows about Amina and her crew, magic is real, yet dangerous. Amina’s experiences with magic have left her traumatized and distrustful of it. When Amina and her crew realize that an item both Dunya and Falco are searching for is rumored to have magical properties, Amina tries to abandon the mission, but she is coerced into finishing the job. What happened to Amina during her run-ins with magic? The second subplot delves into Amina and her relationship with her daughter, Marjana. Amina has been married a few times before she married Marjana’s father. Not only was Amina’s last husband the only one who managed to father a child with Amina, but also Amina’s last husband wasn’t human. As for Marjana, Amina—similar to most parents—want to keep her child safe; but, the question remains, who is Amina trying to protect Marjana from: her enemies, or Marjana’s father? A lot is happening within this novel, but Amina (and the audience) must focus on the mission at hand before she can think about everything else.
The narrative is presented to us from the point of view of Amina. However, the sequence is presented in the past tense and told by the nakhudha to the scribe who insists on writing down her latest adventure. In other words, the audience is presented with an account of Amina’s return to piracy, which means the audience is getting the tale as Amina recalls it. While the scribe writes down everything word-for-word from Amina’s recount of events to moments of flashbacks to her stream-of-consciousness, both the scribe and the audience have no choice but to believe Amina is a reliable (and a truthful) narrator as she tells us what occurred during her latest adventure. And yes, we do learn the identity of the scribe in time, which may or may not add a layer to who is the reliable narrator in this narrative.
The style Shannon Chakraborty uses for The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi is different from what she did for her Daevabad series. First of which the main characters are middle-aged as opposed to being in their 20s. The audience reads about “seasoned” sailors and fighters who must remember that they are getting older and that they have “boring” lives to return to after the adventure ends. The second thing is the pacing of the novel. I want to say the narrative style is responsible for there being a “faster” pace in this series so far compared to the author’s previous one. However, this is the first book in a new series so it is too early to determine whether or not the different pacing will be constant throughout the rest of the series. Fans of Middle Eastern fantasy and historical fiction—particularly One Thousand and One Arabian Nights—will recognize this series is influenced by The Voyages of Sinbad and historical accounts from travelers as far back as the 12th & 13th centuries (read the Author’s Note and Further Reading section). This time around the adventures happen at sea instead of a hidden magical empire. Throughout this novel, there are excerpts of several variants of the treasure the characters are searching for, each variant demonstrates how time and folklore alters the tale for posterity. The mood in this novel is reappearance. Amina is sought out to retrieve a noblewoman’s missing granddaughter, while Amina assembles her old crew for a new voyage. The tone in this novel is urgency. Salima demands Amina rescue her granddaughter within a deadline. In addition, once Amina and her crew learn what Falco Palamenestra is after, the Marawati sails as fast as it can in order to prevent dark magic from getting loose upon the mortal world before a particular date. Please note the map at the beginning of the book (which was not with the ARC I received). The map is based on 12th& 13th century cartography; and yes, the locations on the map are familiar to you because this novel is a historical fantasy. These locations reflect the reality within the fiction.
It goes without saying that if you enjoyed reading the Daevabad series, then you need to read The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi. This book is the first of a new series, and it is an excellent addition to the historical fantasy subgenre canon. Not to mention, this is another addition to a slew of Arabian (Nights) inspired fantasy fiction where readers know they’ll be reading about djinn, relics, marids, etc., in a desert world. Nautical fantasy and characters who are thieves come to mind while reading this book as well. Characters coming out of retirement seem to be a “new” fantasy trope, too. Shannon Chakraborty has managed to write stories that crosses over several fantasy subgenres, and they are worth reading. Yet, if you require a list of similar books to consider before reading this one, then read this book if you enjoyed: The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, Spice Road by Maiya Ibrahim, Of Light and Shadow by Tanaz Bhathena, The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbai, The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah, Weyward by Emilia Hart, When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill, The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, The Bone Ships by R.J. Barker, Kings of Wyld by Nicholas Eames, The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick, and The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang. As you can see The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi will have lasting appeal within the fantasy canon not only because of the high ratings by fans across reader sites (i.e. Goodreads) and book retailers (i.e. Amazon, Barnes & Noble), but also because there is something in this book for ALL fans of the genre. As I mentioned before, this is the first book in a new series. However, it is unclear how many books there will be in this series. Without going into spoilers, I want to say there should be at least 3 books in this series, but due to my past inaccuracies regarding assumptions with the amount of entries in a book series (i.e. A Chorus of Dragons, The Burning), I’m going to say there should be at least 3 books in this series. If I am wrong about this (again), then please let me know.
The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi is an amazing new fantasy series by an established author of the genre who knows how to fascinate her readers with entertaining characters and unique magical worlds. This Arabian-inspired nautical fantasy steals your attention from the opening pages and leaves you wanting more by the end of the story—which, is what readers want and what this author is excellent at doing with her stories. Shannon Chakraborty’s new female protagonist is another strong, yet flawed, individual who figures out a way to balance series with duty. Set sail with Amina and her crew and learn all of the hidden secrets of the world according to Chakraborty.
My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!