I received an ARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review!
CW: homophobia, alcoholism, harem, and religious persecution
When I decided to go for this ARC, I wasn’t entirely sure that I would love it. It sounded interesting, but magical realism isn’t usually my thing. However, the book called to me. I knew that I had to read it.
And, I wasn’t disappointed.
The book takes place in late 15th century Spain, around the time of the Inquisition, when Jews were run out, and the Christian rulers finally retook Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in the country. All of that is the backdrop to the story, so it’s a rather tense time in the Muslim community. And, this book features a diverse Muslim cast that made the story.
Fatima is a Muslim woman who was born and raised in a harem. She is one of the concubines of the sultan, but a favorite. She’s also incredibly feminist, which I loved reading. It never felt anachronistic to me, although it likely was. It was just a whole lot of fun to read quotes that felt so applicable to today.
It’s convenient for girls to be angry about nothing. Girls who are angry about something are dangerous.
On the other hand, there’s Hassan. He’s gay, quite funny, and an absolute sweetheart. He also has a tendency to drink a lot. For the period and the reputation that Islam has as being very against LGBTQ+ relationships, it was very refreshing to read it as being something everyone accepted. Did they necessarily agree with it? No, but it wasn’t a huge deal. It was just Hassan, and they all loved him.
Hassan also draws maps. Specifically, maps to places that no one can go to. Which, when the Spaniards come to inform the sultan that they’re taking the city from him, gets him labeled as a sorcerer… as well as a sodomite.
The intense friendship between Fatima and Hassan was so refreshing. Two people who would be shunned from most people banned together because Fatima didn’t want her best friend tortured and executed. I loved their friendship. It just made me smile when they interacted together because there was so much love between them. I honestly felt — although, as a white person take this with a grain of salt — that it was positive Muslim representation. It’s hard to come by that.
Not only that, but there was great commentary throughout the story. I already mentioned the feminism — and there are more quotes that I could pull out from it that would show that, but I’ll reframe. It also discusses the impact of colonialism (perhaps that’s the wrong word, but it’s the one that comes to mind) on the Muslim community in Spain with the Reconquista.
“Even our stories are not our stories. We tried to tell our own, Fa, and all we did was end up telling theirs.”
Recently, there have been more books talking about the impact of cultural erasure, and I love it. It’s such a needed topic because it happened and it harmed so many diverse communities. So, it was nice that this was pointed out and was a common theme throughout the book.
Another major theme was Christianity doing bad things. When I gave the backdrop of the story, there’s a lot there. The Inquisition trying to root out the Christians who weren’t true Christians. The religious persecution against Jews in Spain and then Muslims when Granada fell. Introduced with the Spaniards is Luz, a woman who is with the Holy Office who decides to persecute Hassan. Later in the book, another Christian character comes along who has this to say about what fellow Christians are doing:
“A holy office! They mutilate and terrify and shame and say they do it out of love. But they’ve killed love. They will burn down the Church itself so they can rule over the ashes.”
I was struck by that quote because that’s something that I’ve felt before. I don’t count myself as a Christian, but it was what I was mainly raised in, so I’m familiar with it. So, when I see people using Christianity to do horrific things, while completely ignoring the message of love and going with the fire and brimstone parts, it hurts. And I just loved that theme.
As for the plot, I didn’t love it as much. At least, I didn’t love the ending. The journey was so beautiful and I could have read thousands of pages of them going around because I loved the characters. Fatima and Hassan were, as I said, brilliantly written and worked so well together. But, I realized that the book was getting closer and closer to the end with no resolution coming. It was wrapped up in a couple chapters and it left me feeling unsatisfied despite how much I loved the book as a whole.
Overall, this was a fantastic book. It was well-written and engaging with amazing characters and themes. It’s definitely a book I’d like to own just so I could go through and reread it. Especially the ending so I can see if I get something more out of it the second time.
Any book recs that have amazing Muslim characters?