The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty
Shannon Chakraborty, author of the recommended THE DAEVAVAD TRILOGY, is back with the start of a new series, and if the first book, The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi, is any measure, it’s sure to be as fun and magic filled as the first (sharp-eyed readers will at one point note it’s actually set in the same universe as the first as well, albeit much earlier).
Some years ago Amina Al-Sirafi was a famed smuggler and pirate before going into retirement to care for her daughter, Marjana. Though, as our frame narrator — the scribe Jamal al-Hilli — tells us, she came out of retirement to “become more than a pirate. She became a legend.” A reality that may surprise her audience, Jamal notes, because even a rebellious or adventurous woman’s stories is “expected to end — with the boy, the prince . . . The man that will take her maidenhood, grant her children, make her a wife. The man who defines her.” Even, of course, as his story is allowed to continue, while her is “expected to dissolve into a fog of domesticity.” Amina’s story, though did not, as in truth no woman’s does, Jamal insists, even if their stores are never told or, as is usually the case if they are, those tales are “misremembered. Discarded. Twisted.”
What follows this introductory section is the story of how Amina is drawn out of retirement and hired to reassemble her crew and seek out the kidnapped daughter of a former, now-dead, shipmate. A task easier said than done, as it turns out the kidnapper is a powerful magic user who seeks an ancient artifact (the Moon of Saba) that will give him even more power and allow him to remake the world in his vision.
The ensuing plot is mostly an exuberant joy (the “mostly” due to a few pacing hiccups here and there that detract hardly at all from the overall pleasure), filled with various and sundry magical creatures, wry banter, shipwrecks, battles at sea, a former husband who is more than he seems and funnier than he has any right being. The main character is richly realized, a strong woman who refuses to be constrained by society’s expectations of women or mothers, one who is upfront about her sexuality and her ambition for fame and adventure even as she is conflicted over how it interferes with her being a full-time mother to Marjana. She loves her daughter utterly, loves being a mother, but also misses her former life on the seas and Chakraborty displays a wonderfully balanced touch in handling that dilemma.
The other characters are mostly strong as well, introduced one by one in the usual “let’s get the band back together” narrative, with two particular stand-outs amongst Amina’s found family: Dalia, the Mistress of Poisons who is delightfully sharp and dangerous, but with hidden emotional depths that are gradually revealed; and Majed, the Father of Maps, who gives us another parent figure as well as acting as a representative figure of both loyalty and curiosity. And then there’s that former husband, Raksh, of whom I don’t want to say too much save to note that nearly every scene with him evokes at least one laugh-out-loud moment. Our villain, the Frankish crusader and madman Falco Palamenestra, meanwhile, is suitably and deeply disturbing.
Thematically, Chakraborty weaves in lots of discussion of women in society and the complexities of motherhood, as previously noted, and dips as well into other issues of maintaining (or finding) one’s identify despite societal pressure. Storytelling is another theme: the power of stories, as well as their unreliability, the ways they can be warped, sometimes naturally and sometimes intentionally. Within that vein, the plot is sometimes entertainingly digressive, as we get various versions of some tales.
I won’t say anything about the ending except to note that it, and our frame narration, make it clear that this is merely the jumping off point for the adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi. A revelation that should make nearly any reader happy. I, for one, look forward to the several promised.