Spice Road by Maiya Ibrahim
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a debut author, and as such the book has some of the typical first-time-out problems: plot holes (when the protagonist says she knows where her missing brother has gone and who he is with, none of the adults grilling her think to ask: "And how do you know this exactly?"), and sometimes inconsistent characterization and pacing.
That said, this is an interesting Middle Eastern-inspired fantasy with themes of colonialism and classism. Sometimes those themes are hit pretty heavily, but since the protagonist Imani comes across as a pretty naive sort who requires some shocks to jolt her out of her sheltered worldview, this harsh awakening seems to be necessary. Imani and her family live in the city of Qalia, which has been isolated by magic from the rest of the country of Alqibah for a thousand years. Imani is a Shield, a member of a fighting unit which protects Qalia and the rest of the region known as the Sahir from the various monsters found there. Imani, the other members of the Shield, and the various sorcerers in Qalia gain their powers by drinking a magical spiced tea. This gives rise to the book's opening line: "We will fight, but first we will have tea."
Over the course of the book, Imani goes from rigid in her thinking and loyal to a Qalian Council that she discovers has lied to her, to discovering the truth about the outside world and the people who live in it. She follows in the footsteps of her elder brother Atheer, who has made a similar journey and is using the magic of the misra spice to help Alqibah, which is being overrun by the colonizing Harrowlanders. Some of her character arc is a bit clunky, and the dreaded YA love triangle is clearly being set up between Imani and two other characters. (I've been spoiled about love triangles ever since I read Xiran Jay Zhao's
where the author says, "Screw the heroine's having to choose," and the three characters enter into a polyamorous triad.) Another prominent character is Qayn, a thousand-year-old djinni who was once the king of an ancient city and who helps Imani find her brother. (Of course Qayn has a hidden agenda, as does Taha, Imani's fellow Shield who leads the expedition to find Atheer.)
This book has its flaws, but it has enough promise for me to continue with the story.
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