May 28, 2023

Review: The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi

The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by S.A. Chakraborty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a marvelous tale of pirating, motherhood, estranged demon husbands, and the price of dreams: both of denying them and pursuing them.

The titular character and protagonist, Amina al-Sirafi, is a retired pirate queen who quit the business after her daughter Marjana was born, gifting her ship, the Marawati, to her first mate Tinbu. Ten years later, Amina, Marjana and her mother are eking out a living on a seaside farm when a woman named Salima appears, wishing to hire the infamous Amina al-Sirafi to track down her missing granddaughter. Amina knows she should not take the job, but the chance for one last adventure, an opportunity to return to the sea one more time, proves impossible to resist. She sets out to gather together her old crew, reunite with her ship, and hunt down the missing Dunya, and in the process gets in more trouble than she could have ever imagined.

The worldbuilding and characterization here is top-notch. This is set in the Arab-Muslim world of the twelfth century in and around the Indian Ocean, with all the diverse peoples and cultures of that era. There are also magical creatures and monsters, portals to alternate dimensions, and a "Frank" (the word of the time for Western European) who wishes to gain enough magical power to burn down the world, and who Amina has to go up against. The descriptions of seafaring life are spot-on: the reader can almost taste the salt and hear the waves.

Amina is the rare protagonist who is past forty and a mother, who has lived a full life with many mistakes and regrets. Her biggest regret is giving up her ship and her dreams of exploration, even though she did it for her daughter. This theme of thwarted dreams runs through the book:

For how could I enjoy being on the Marawati if it kept me from Marjana? Especially on a mission so dangerous?

But I did. I loved it. I had always loved it. I loved being on my ship, the wind in my face and the salty damp on my clothes. I loved taking pride in running a tight vessel and a capable crew, jesting with my companions and rising each dawn to see a new expanse of water stretching towards the horizon. Seafaring had been stamped into my soul long ago; there was no rooting it out.

This "one last job" leads Amina into dangers and worlds she could never have anticipated, and brings her face to face with Raksh, the estranged demon husband she thought she bound ten years ago (and who is also the father of Marjana, though he does not know it). Raksh is another well-written character, a cowardly, craven, self-absorbed betrayer who does his level best to make just about any situation worse. But Amina cannot get rid of him, not yet; she finally faces up to the fact that one day Marjana will need to know the truth about her heritage. And even after this one final dangerous adventure, Amina's own dreams have never left her:

I had never stopped being a nakhuda [a ship owner, authority at sea per the glossary], never stopped being an explorer. It wasn't this accursed demon or spirit of discord or whatever he called himself putting alien desires into my soul: I wanted to travel the world and sail every sea. I wanted to have adventures, to be a hero, to have my tales told in courtyards and street fairs, where perhaps kids who'd grown up like me, with more imagination than means, might be inspired to dream. Where women who were told there was only one sort of respectful life for them could listen to tales of another who'd broken away--and thrived when she'd done so.

I wanted to show Marjana that. Not now. But when she was older, when it was safer. I wanted to teach my daughter to read the waves and the night sky, to see her eyes widen with wonder and curiosity when I brought 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.

There are quite a few twists and turns in this tale, which gets more magical and fantastical as it progresses. The pacing is deft, the characters flawed and realistic, and Amina's voice carries the reader right along. This story clearly sets things up for more adventures to come, and I hope it sells enough that the author gets to write them. If so, I'll be right there rooting Amina and her crew on.

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