Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee is an own-voices Korean, own-voices LGBTQIA+ adult science-fiction novel following a person named Gyen Jebi who has a passion for painting. When they find themselves jobless and desperate, they are recruited by the Ministry of Armour to paint mystical symbols that animate the occupying government’s soldiers. But when Jebi learns of the government’s horrifying crimes, they know that they can no longer stay out of the politics. Instead, they become determined to steal Arazi, the ministry’s mighty dragon automaton in order to stand up and fight.
Phoenix Extravagant is an exceptional piece of science-fiction that is beautifully complex yet approachable and fascinatingly original. It is one of the best novels released within the genre in all of 2020.
As a fellow nonbinary person, the representation provided via Gyen Jebi was absolutely amazing, along with the representations of other Queer identities and relationships. It is such a natural part of the social structure and environment that it evoked a strong sense of emotional reactions from me, mostly of deep gratitude and respect. Being able to read about characters with the same gender identity as myself partaking in such a fierce element of social justice was positively breath-taking.
The setting is a fantasy-steeped Korea, known as Hwaguk, which is under the strict occupation of what can be construed as the Japanese Empire, or Razanei. The descriptions of being oppressed and forced to forsake one’s entire cultural identity for that of the same people who violently usurped one’s homeland is vicious and incredibly multi-layered. This is further enhanced by the rift between those individuals who seek to make peace with their new realities and the people who continue to fight for their freedom. The depiction of the political situation being a literal manner of survival is brilliantly depicted via the diverging populaces and the political ramifications that impact them.
I found the commentary and tension of the world-building to be especially relevant to today’s socio-political upheaval, making it feel far more personal and intimate than I could have imagined. Combined with the fantastically sophisticated and inventive writing style, the reader is pulled into an immersive and suspense-fuelled ride of dexterous characters and the highly daedal perspectives of war and how it is not as black and white as it appears to be on the surface.
My favourite creative elements in Phoenix Extravagant were the dragon and the magic system. It was such a beautifully unique experience to see how independent the automaton dragon was. It was entertaining yet enlightening and even a bit cerebral. Combining that with painting being used as a grammar for the magic system, Phoenix Extravagant brilliantly implements fantasy-laced, steampunk-style aesthetics into the atmosphere that one cannot help but be astounded by.
If there is anything that I could complain about, it is only that I wish it were slightly longer in terms of historical context. The political foundation for the narrative is so thought-provoking and interesting to me that I would adore a secondary book that goes into more details. I would consume it ravenously.
All in all, Phoenix Extravagant is a superb work of genre fiction that I highly recommend to readers that enjoy a combination of steampunk sci-fi and inventive fantasy elements set against a Korean socio-cultural backdrop. Bibliophiles that like intelligently written adult fiction shall also find a lot to adore here.
Please note that I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review, courtesy of Solaris.
Publication Date: 20-October-2020 Publisher: Solaris Genre: Korean Literature, Science-Fiction Page Count: 416 pages Content Warning(s): Interrogation torture (on page). Attempted violence against a cat. Mass Death. Bombing. Intense representation of oppression and forced assimilation. GoodReads: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee
“He is buoyant—of another dimension, one that does not experience the friction of the world in the same way she does. His fingers dart around the edges of a cigarette he twirls in his hand, and all she can think is ease. She has never felt that. She is more like the cigarette itself, passed from hand to mouth to earth, sucked dry and then forgotten.”
The Deep by Alma Katsu is a historical supernatural mystery novel about a young woman named Annie who survived the sinking of the Titanic, only to find herself working aboard another ship, the Britannica, years later. While working on the second ship, she is reminded of her time on the infamous maiden voyage of the Britannica’s predecessor; memories that are further heightened when she bumps into a familiar face.
Historical fiction stories that alternate between two time periods are my favourites due to the amount of depth that they add to the story. Being able to decipher connections from both eras is engrossingly fascinating. Couple that with my passionate infatuation with the Titanic as well as ghosts, then the compulsion to read said story becomes practically irresistible, more so when they are as excellently written as The Deep.
The best part of the novel is how fastidiously the tale is crafted with an adroit storytelling style that combines the nostalgia of historical fiction with an enigmatically eerie atmosphere of a ghostly mystery. The author utilises strange touches of spiritualism and superstition to create an environment that is marvellously creepy and claustrophobic.
The glorious writing is further accentuated by the extensively researched material that is used to share a tale based off a real-life tragedy. The artful examination of the varying class systems on the Titanic and how those systems dictated the “worth” of those who survived versus those who perished goes to show us that in terms of caste hierarchies not much has changed over the last century. This subtle exposé was a minute detail in the overarching narrative that I appreciated.
A couple of elements that may be a bit off-putting to fellow readers include the hefty cast of characters who mostly have seemingly miniscule roles in the grand scheme. Even so, each character does contribute to the plot as a whole, like pieces of a mosaic that are pieced together to finish a much larger puzzle.
Another aspect that shall be hit-or-miss with some folx include the gradual progression of events. A big chunk of The Deep is built upon dialogue exchanges and inner monologues to stimulate the different senses in order to immerse the reader completely into the pages. The slower pace works to increase the tension in a soft and unexpected manner. However, it also makes it challenging at times to stay completely focused on what is unfolding. I enjoyed the apprehension and anxiety that cultivates towards the climax as it felt more impactful due to the nature of the gentler tempo, which can be the key to a great mystery experience.
Overall, The Deep was a wonderful historical fiction novel with an interesting spectral twist I did not expect. The settings are impeccably dreary with writing that is tight and meticulous. I highly recommend this to fans who enjoy the nostalgia of the historical fiction genre, as well as readers that delight in soft ghost stories.
Publication Date: 10-March-2020 Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Genre: Historical Fiction, Supernatural Fiction, Mystery Page Count: 420 pages Content Warning(s): Psychological institutionalism. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (near drowning). Drowning (on page). Wartime injuries (moderate descriptions, on page). Suicide ideation. Suicide attempt. Death of a child (on page). Consensual sex (on page). GoodReads: The Deep by Alma Katsu
“There’s only so many times a heart can break. One day, it will be okay, but it’ll heal all wrong. It’ll heal with you outside of it.”
The Weight on Skin by Beena Khan is an adult own-voices South Asian contemporary romance novel about a man named Kabir who is struggling to move on with his life after a devastating heartbreak. Feeling empty, lonely, and sombre, Kabir tries to fill the void within his heart through the company of other women, only to be left hollow in their wake. When ghosts from Kabir’s past resurface, he shall be forced to confront the darkest parts of himself.
If there is anything that the author does fantastically, it is slow-burn romances. It was the best aspect of her previous novel—and sibling novel to The Weight on Skin—called The Name of Red and it is the quintessential star of the show here as well. Couple that with the excellent representation of the complexities of coping through an emotionally destructive heartbreak and positively beautiful writing, then one has themselves a romance contemporary that is ripe for the binge-reading.
Kabir is a character that I adored in The Name of Red. There is an innocence and a compassion about him that makes it difficult not to form some sort of emotional attachment to him. To witness his utter psychological destruction was a gut-wrenching experience. However, the growth that occurs in the aftermath of all that agonising grief is exceptional and a wonderfully picturesque allegory for hope.
“Hope, Kabir. Hope gives you the courage to move on.”
Losing a loved one—no matter the circumstance or method—leaves behind a surfeit of complicated emotions, such as grief, guilt, anger, longing, loneliness, and a profound sense of hopelessness. Kabir exhibits all of these different feelings, which later lays down a vital foundation for him to then grow upon. Every heartbreak leads to a special form of self-growth and maturity. Oft times people do not realise they not only have the fortitude within them to pick up and move forward, but also to shape and mould who they are into the best versions of themselves. By the time the book’s finale appears before the reader’s eyes, Kabir would have grown into a stunningly remarkable person, the pinnacle of hope.
Another character that steps into the spotlight in the pages of The Weight on Skin is Nadia, who was Kabir’s best friend. She intrigued me in the previous novel, however, due to her limited presence in the story, I never associated much of a connection to her. Here she is a game-changer. Nadia is a marvellous contrast to Red, which really helps to define the dualities within Kabir’s character and highlight his inner turmoil, making them both impeccably multi-faceted individuals.
Mrs Khan’s writing is the magical cohesive that brings all of the different parts of the story together in a highly-engaging and heart-fluttering manner. It is carefully crafted with charming details that truly immerse the reader into the world and budding relationship that takes place between both characters, evoking a spectrum of responses that illustrate exactly what it means to be human.
The structure of the evocative atmosphere truly enhance the slow-burn romance in magnificent ways. If there is anything that I detest in romances, it is insta-love. I much prefer a coupling to build their connection on meaningful exchanges—whether it is sweet and soft, or vicious and witty—because it accentuates the development of a deep-rooted longing in the relationship. It is gratifying and sensuous and irresistibly delightful. Kabir and Nadia’s exchanges are exactly like this; never rushed or brusque for the sake of forcing the story along. Rather than being superficial and one-dimensional, it is built upon the value of formulating bonds that connect the past to the present, misery to joy.
Overall, I cannot recommend The Weight on Skin enough to romance readers, especially folx who prefer a gradual building of emotions and compassion between two people; individuals searching for a genuine depiction of heartbreak that is not ostensibly imagined. Great writing. Superb characters. Lovely messages on the power of hope and the heart-warming promises on the other side of rejection.
Publication Date: 15-July-2020 Publisher: Beena Khan (self-published) Genre: Adult Contemporary Romance, South Asian Literature Page Count: 320 GoodReads: The Weight on Skin by Beena Khan
Recently, while combatting a terrible reading slump, I felt a sudden urge to read picture books. My mind wanted to indulge in something short yet wholesome and heart-warming. After scrounging through my library’s digital offerings, I uncovered five diverse, own-voices titles that sounded perfect for the mood that I unexpectedly found myself in. Each of them were a marvellously yet oft times bittersweet experience and I wanted to share some brief reviews for these reads with you today.
Mango Moon by Diane De Anda and Sue Cornelison (illustrator): An own-voices Latinx story about a family who must grieve and come to terms with an uncertain future after their father and husband is taken away, pending deportation. As they adapt to finding a new home, his absence at sports games and birthday celebrations, they seek to fill their newfound emptiness with precious memories of the man they miss dearly.
This book was breathtakingly heart-breaking. The harsh reality that many families in the United States are currently faced with is brought into a vivid and straightforward fore in this stunning tale. We watch as this family’s life is turned completely upside down, leaving them with feelings of loneliness, loss, and even abandonment. The memories they have of their father is the only way that they know how to cope with him being gone.
The tale is expressed through gorgeous artwork. The colours are bright yet soft with details that capture the expressions of the pain and longing that these kids are feeling in a manner that shall be very accessible to any and all kids who will pick this book up. It’s perfect for adults because it highlights the truth of today’s cruel political chaos, while also being vital for children by depicting the importance of family and the small memories that families create together. Highly recommended.
This is my favourite rendition of the Goldilocks story yet! It is delightfully heart-warming and fun, with a reimagining that is gloriously and unapologetically Chinese. The cultural inclusion that is expressed via the panda bears, the turnip cakes, and the atmosphere of celebrating the Chinese New Year truly make this book a splendid addition to any library!
It was cute to read about Goldy Luck and how she tends to mess up the tasks she is charged with. However, it was even more endearing to read how she goes about in resolving the errors of her ways. It portrays the togetherness and importance of giving that is a huge part of the Chinese New Year, so adorably with charming, simple illustrations that utilise glorious, saturated colours of red, yellow, and greens that surround the reader in a sense of happiness. The book also includes a recipe for turnip cakes at the end, along with an author’s note that briefly describes the Chinese New Year. Highly recommended for all kids to check out as it opens up the beauty of diverse cultures in such a lovely manner.
The Boy and the Bindi by Vivek Shraya and Rajni Perera (illustrator): An own-voices Indian, own-voices LGBTQIA+ story about a young child who becomes fascinated with his Ammi’s bindi—the red dot commonly adorned by Hindu women to indicate the point of creation’s beginning—and wishes that he had one of his very own! Rather than scolding her son, she happily agrees to it and uses the opportunity to enlighten him about its cultural significance.
Nothing makes me happier than seeing acceptance of Queer kids in highly conservative communities, such as the South Asian community. Reading a story about a mum who treats her son’s curiosity and interest in understanding something outside of his expected gender role with respect and encouragement filled my own Trans heart with an indescribable amount of comfort and joy. This one act of kindness and regard helps her son to understand a bit more about himself, and as such, come to realise his own identity.
The artwork consists of focused drawings of the mother and bindi upon plain, white backgrounds that make the essence of the tale pop off the pages magnificently, signifying that this is a story about a boy who finds himself in the beauty of his culture.
I love that the characters are stunning, unapologetically brown individuals being joyous amid familial camaraderie. I feel this is something that we don’t get to witness nearly enough in literature, especially children’s works. Highly recommended to all readers, especially South Asian kids and families; witness the serenity of encouraging a child’s discovery of themselves and the elation that blossoms because of it.
Mooncakes by Loretta Seto and Renné Benoit (illustrator): An own-voices Chinese book about a young girl who is preparing to celebrate the Moon Festival with her parents. As they make mooncakes and sit outside waiting for the moon to rise, she listens to the stories about certain individuals that found their way to the moon.
My favourite part about this story is how centred it is on being humble and kind, while promoting a sense of family togetherness that is so beautifully soothing. The little girl’s curiosity along with the love that her parents have for her, depicted in the smaller details, is powerful and uplifting. My second favourite thing is the artwork, which uses muted shades of browns, yellows, and blues with soft details and cute characters. This would make an excellent bedtime story.
The themes of being humble and honest are depicted via the three stories that her parents share with her about individuals—who via the grace of the Jade Emperor and their own efforts—that ended up taking residence on the moon and significantly contribute to the beauty of the world in one form or another. The messages seem simple, yet they are deep and rather meaningful and perfect for youngsters to better understand compassion in the world around them. Highly recommend for readers of all ages, especially those interested in Chinese folktales.
Hana Hashimoto, Sixth Violin by Chieri Uegaki and Qin Leng (illustrator): An own-voices Japanese tale about a young violinist named Hana who decides to enter a competition. While her brothers give her a bad time about her playing, Hana reminisces about her Ojiichan (her grandfather) and the many memories she has of him surrounding her childhood with beautiful memories.
Out of all five of these books, this is the one that brought me to tears. It is my favourite story from the bunch and concentrates on the outstanding worth of sentimentalism in pursuing our passions, while also celebrating different ways that memories can help us heal and move forward when faced with loss. Lastly, it also shines a bright light on always believing in yourself even when others try to surround you in doubt.
Hana is precocious child with a lively imagination that is filled to the brim with sweet memories of her Ojiichan playing the violin for her and her family, all of which end up formulating the essence of her performance at the competition. It is an homage to a man that filled her heart with so much love and joy. This was indescribably personal for me because it reminded me of my Bhaiya (brother) who did the very same thing for me but with a pianoforte rather than a violin. It was so touching and inspiring that I was wholeheartedly moved to tears.
The illustrations are all so wonderful too, with details that brought every ounce of Hana’s memories and creativity to life in an upbeat and almost cinematic manner. The passion that Hana has for the violin, as well as the respect for its association to her beloved grandfather, pours off the pages and embraces the reader in a blanket of amenity that makes you want to immediately re-read the story again after finishing it. Highly recommended to any readers that are searching for a bit of motivation and uplifting spirit, as well as an impeccable sense of familial companionship.
Picture books are fabulous and should not be restricted to children’s reading pleasures. There are so many awe-inspiring narratives out there within the medium that is just as vital to adults (more so in many ways) as they are to growing brains and hearts, and I highly recommend that fellow bibliophiles take a chance at indulging in them, particularly diverse, own-voices ones!
Seven by Farzana Doctor is an #OwnVoices Indian fiction literature novel about a woman named Sharifa who travels to India with her husband with the hopes of learning more about her great-great-grandfather who was an immensely successful businessman and a philanthropist. During her research, however, instead of discovering a tale of rags-to-riches, Sharifa learns that her grandfather had four wives, all of whom had been omitted from the family’s lore. As she becomes more and more engrossed in the enigma surrounding these women, Sharifa also becomes entangled in a powerful familial debate regarding khatna—an age-old ritual of female genital cutting, one that shall force her to face her own reality and choose a side.
One of the most intriguing characteristics about Seven is the subject matter of female genital cutting (FGC) as it is one that I have never seen discussed in literature before. My own personal knowledge of this ritual is extremely limited and for all intents and purposes, it has always been a topic that has existed within my own cultural circles, but one that is never openly discussed. While I was curious to learn more about FGC, I was wary of the sensitivity with which it would be broached in the book. Ms Doctor not only discusses this vital issue with accessibility and evocativeness, she also does so with great care and consideration, which is what truly makes Seven such an incredible title.
The writing style is simple and rather straight-forward, making it easy to get utterly consumed within the pages, more so when the emotions surrounding the subject matter are portrayed with authenticity and thoughtfulness. Each side of the debate is given attention and respect, and provides an insightful, educative, and captivating reading experience. The tone while discussing the roots of these rituals and why some family members still believe in the practise is never spiteful or accusatory, which is an incredibly challenging feat given the nature of this matter. Her exposition is careful and considerate from beginning to end, even when it leans a bit more towards one side versus the other.
The superb use of emotions to illustrate the tensions within Sharifa’s family as they discuss this practise draws the reader further into the complexities of olden traditional Indian culture that most would consider to be highly outdated. There are layers of complexities that go beyond simple right and wrong that create a plethora of reactions and responses as the story unfolds, making the book practically impossible to put down.
The focus on FGC plays parallel to some of the other issues that Sharifa is battling in Seven and that helps to formulate an even more elaborate narrative filled with multi-dimensional themes on gender roles (particularly where sex is concerned), self-acceptance, the intricacies of cultural identity, marriage, female relationships, and much more. Sharifa’s husband, Murtuza, was a pleasant surprise whilst reading. He was a compassionate and understanding man who always valued his wife’s thoughts and feelings, highlighting an equity in their marriage that is rarely depicted in books showcasing more culturally inflexible gender-centric functions in South Asian communities, especially with respect to her inner turmoil regarding her sexuality and mental fortitude.
While Seven is not an easy book to read, it is vastly important, and I highly recommend it to readers that are searching for a unique story with fallibly relatable characters. With writing that is supported via excellent research, a respectful approach to an intensely delicate subject matter, a sensitive exhibition of sex and romance amid rigid Indian traditions and gender roles, and beautifully sincere use of emotions, there is very little within these pages that shall disappoint.
Please note that I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review, courtesy of Dundurn Press.
“The men watched with fascination as she opened a book and bowed her head in it. It looked like she was avoiding the crowd, and she appeared to want to blend in. It was impossible though since she’d already caught the attention of her audience by simply standing out in her red dress.”
The Name of Red by Beena Khan is an #OwnVoices South Asian contemporary romance about a woman known only as Red who frequents a local bar every evening where she drinks vodka and reads books. One evening an admirer begins leaving specific titles for her upon her favoured reading spot with notes tucked into the pages. Feeling intrigued by the gesture, she reciprocates the gift-giving with responses to said notes, thus starting a curious friendship. The novel is a debut release.
There were many attributes to The Name of Red that kept me steadfastly invested in the story between Red and her mystery admirer, such as the incredible descriptive writing and the slow-burn interaction between the two individuals, however the novel’s downfall was how unpolished and repetitive the prose became.
The strongest trait of the novel is the captivating way that the author is able to create atmosphere. It was marvellously easy to picture Red getting situated at the bar and trying to focus on her book, but then becoming wholly uncomfortable when men would gawk at her inappropriately. Another scene was when she receives her first book from the admirer and the caution that she felt along with a twist of curiosity and excitement was delightful and charming. These fantastic descriptives extend to character interactions and dialogue sequences, where details of facial expressions and emotional reactions were shared, providing the reader with a superb recognition of how everyone was reacting to one another. This tends to be a characteristic that is quite commonly overlooked in contemporaries during verbal exchanges and its presence here was immensely appreciated. Additionally, it further cements the heat of the slow-burn development of feelings between Red and her eventual love-interest, Kabir.
The second facet that makes The Name of Red so fiercely engaging is the aforementioned romance. The rapport is built on two individuals who get to know each other gradually through shared (and separate) interests and a natural inquisitiveness about one another’s past encounters and relationships. It helps create a foundation of trust and mutual respect that is splendidly genuine and empathetic. The establishment of familiarity when building a romantic relationship or even a platonic kinship is a great portrayal of how healthy bonds are forged and something that is vastly needed more of in adult romances.
The only true downfall of The Name of Red is the unpolished nature of the overall writing style. In the first half of the book, there are tons of repetitive words and phrases that make it feel tedious and overtly accentuated, mainly when describing Red’s beauty and the impact that it has on people around her. Rather than being allowed to gauge the reactions and formulate an opinion independently, it occasionally felt like the reader was supposed to respond with or think specific things, and that can become highly grating as one gets backed into a very precise corner. This is further reinforced if one is doing a single reading session for the book.
In later chapters, the quality of the writing takes a significant downturn as well. Rather than the carefully crafted sentences that is found in the first one-third of the narrative, the prose becomes riddled with many grammatical errors and inconsistent sentence structures that detracts from a smooth reading experience. I found myself stopping every so often to re-visit certain passages and paragraphs so that I could understand them fully, which further exasperated the repetitive element of the novel, but in a completely different manner. Suffice to say that the book needed a serious hand at editing as it reads like a second draft rather than a final product.
Writing titbits aside, there was one narrative element I also did not particularly care for and that was the amount of trauma that is introduced later on. Much of the trauma felt like contrived plot devices for shock value and it places a great amount of distance between the reader and the initial investment that hooks one into the plot and character plights. The suspension of disbelief utterly evaporates in the last one-third to one-fourth of the narrative, which then impacts the storytelling quality as a whole. However, I do feel the need to admit that I am not typically a reader of romance, so regulars of the genre may find these elements far more palatable than I did.
Overall, The Name of Red was a great debut. The author has immense potential to be a superb contributor to the genre. Having such a skill for crafting immersive settings and characters that are easy to root for, I am positive that she shall only get better with each new book she releases. I look forward to seeing what her next story shall entail. I recommendThe Name of Red for people who fancy diverse slow-burn romances.
“Jie’s heart leaped into her throat. How had she not heard someone approach on the nightingale floors, or even open the door? She spun around, hand reaching for her bladed hairpin.”
Prelude to Insurrection by J.C. Kang is short story introduction to the author’s expansive #OwnVoices Chinese adult fantasy series, Legends of Tivara. It follows a young orphan half-elf spy known as Jie as she tries to thwart a dangerous rebellion before it even begins.
My acquaintanceship with J.C. Kang’s multi-book universe occurred late one evening while I was browsing Amazon’s catalogue of fantasy Kindle e-books. Overwhelmed by the various connecting serials, I visited the author’s website where they shared a recommended reading order for all books in the Legends of Tivara series. Prelude to Insurrection was the suggested place to begin, so I bought a copy for ninety-nine cents and read it immediately.
Being only seventy-four pages long, the short story is a decent way to whet one’s appetite for a historical Asian-inspired fantasy narrative. The first thing I noticed was how descriptive the settings were without being overwhelming or too wordy. The manner of which everything is described helped transport me to the location and situation that the main character Jie was embroiled in. I also appreciated the way the character’s facial expressions were portrayed as that is something that I feel is often trudged over in short stories, more so if there is already a familiarity with the cast members being depicted.
The action sequences were written very well and created an almost cinematic picture wheel in my mind as I read on. It was fast-paced and pleasantly flowing, emanating an escapism suffused adventure. This worked to add some intrigue to the hints of political strife that were woven into Jie’s mission. My hope is that the political upheaval that was teased shall be expounded upon in the full-length novels that follow because the small revelations that were shared were quite interesting.
If there’s any complaint to be had about the short story, it would be that it was, well, too short, which made it seem one-dimensional and bit pointless as a starting position for a whole series. There just was not enough information provided to completely hook me into wanting to learn more about the world of Tivara. However, if I had picked up Prelude to Insurrection after already having read a couple of the full-sized books, I am sure that I would feel differently about it.
All in all, Prelude to Insurrection was a pleasant little tale that fell a tiny bit too brief as a launching platform for a whole fantasy series. My goal is to return to it again in the future when I have more fleshed out knowledge about the political tension, the important characters, and the sort of person Jie is as both a spy and as a normal person outside of that role. I do recommend the author’s writings though. It’s rather superb and shows immense promise.
Can sadness be too heavy for God? Maybe God can bear it all, but I don’t know if I can. The world is a stone in me, heavy with Baba’s voice and the old clock tower and the man selling tea in the street. I want to believe things are supposed to be better, but I don’t have the words to say how.”
The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar is an #OwnVoices Syrian-American fiction story about a girl named Nour and her family after they move back to Syria in the wake of her father’s passing. As they struggle to build a new life together in midst of unbearable grief, their town is bombed, significantly changing the course of their life as they know it.
There were so many elements to The Map of Salt and Stars that made it a phenomenally beautiful reading experience, such as the lyrical prose, the duality of stories being told, the nuances of past and present grief, and the heart-breaking nature of a refugee’s fight for survival.
The main character is a little girl named Nour. She has a condition called synaesthesia, which is neurological condition where multiple senses that are not typically connected become joined together. For example, it allows for people to hear colours or to be able to see sounds. Because of that, the prose is stunningly eloquent with lush descriptives that utilises numerous shades of bright colours to express feelings of sadness, grief, longing, guilt, joy and more. Nour sees the pain and suffering around her as people are dying or starving in shades of reds, yellows, and blues, for example. Because her entire existence is so heavily focused on the reliance of colours, the way she communicates her thoughts and fears to her mother seem almost constantly metaphorical. Eventually, their colour communication shall help them with an impossible situation that arises during their journey.
Now, there are two stories that take place side-by-side in The Map of Salt and Stars. The first is Nour’s story, during the present time, as her and her family become Syrian refugees. The second one is a fictional tale that her father used to share with her, and it occurs 800 years earlier, following a girl that disguises herself as a boy so she can become an apprentice to a renowned mapmaker. They travel the lands and fill in the blank places on the map. What makes both of these narratives so fascinating is how much of an echo they are of one another. Rawiya, the girl from the fictional story, goes on a long journey that allows for her to truly understand what family means to her, as well as what culture and history can mean for a person’s identity. Through Rawiya the reader also gets to experience Syria back when it was thriving and filled with tons of splendour, highlighting huge aspects of West Asian culture.
With Nour’s voyage, the reader gets to watch as Nour comes to understand how precious her family is to her. The memories of her father become her most cherished treasure, thoughts of her Syrian home and how it lay in pieces show her of a home she lost before she was able to grasp what it meant to her, and how the complex sibling rivalries she held with her sisters are meaningless and a waste of life when that same life can end in a single moment. Nour’s journey is one that is brimming with sorrow and terror and uncertainty as her family travels across lands where the ground is blanketed with brass casings, broken rocks, and ill-intentions.
“He said, ‘People don’t get lost on the outside. They get lost on the inside. Why are there no maps of that?’ ”
The only time that these two separate stories felt disjointed to me was when we shifted from one to the other. Because there is such a vast reliance on what sometimes amount to purple prose aesthetics with Nour’s point-of-view, it sometimes made it challenging for me to focus on sections with Rawiya, which felt rather simplistic and lacklustre in comparison. My brain could not adapt quickly or comfortably from a straightforward and artless tone to the more sophisticated and impeccably ornate descriptives of Nour’s world.
Beyond that, The Map of Salt and Stars is an exceptionally heart-wrenching story to read. One of the biggest themes of the book is how quickly life can change. Nour and her family are uprooted as their home is destroyed. They gather everything that they can carry with them, find a few loved ones, and take off on foot in search of a place they can call home where death and dust do not plague them like shadows. This is the brutal reality of what it means to be a refugee, and a traumatising experience that many all around the world have undergone or are still experiencing to this day. The devastating experiences and overwhelming sense of hopelessness that threatens to dismantle Nour and her family is never sugar-coated or diminished, which I appreciated immensely because in spite of everything going on, they never lost that bit of hope, and this is such a profound message, particularly in tales that centre on a loss of identity to various extents.
The Map of Salt and Stars is one of the most consummate books that I have read in years, especially as it pertains to the refugee experience. It is magnificently compelling and emotionally riveting. The story is not an easy one to digest as it portrays the harsh reality of loss in multiple layers and dynamics, with the loss of home, loss of loved ones, loss of individuality, and even loss of faith, but that is also what makes it one of the most important books that you shall read.