Rummanah Aasi
Description: Zafira is the Hunter, disguising herself as a man when she braves the cursed forest of the Arz to feed her people. Nasir is the Prince of Death, assassinating those foolish enough to defy his autocratic father, the king. If Zafira was exposed as a girl, all of her achievements would be rejected; if Nasir displayed his compassion, his father would punish him in the most brutal of ways. Both are legends in the kingdom of Arawiya—but neither wants to be.
   War is brewing, and the Arz sweeps closer with each passing day, engulfing the land in shadow. When Zafira embarks on a quest to uncover a lost artifact that can restore magic to her suffering world and stop the Arz, Nasir is sent by the king on a similar mission: retrieve the artifact and kill the Hunter. But an ancient evil stirs as their journey unfolds—and the prize they seek may pose a threat greater than either can imagine.

Review: We Hunt the Flame is one of my most anticipated reads of 2019. I know the author Hafsah Faizal who is a book blogger and creative artist behind Icey Designs. I could not wait to read another thrilling fantasy series set in a mythical Arabia and I am so happy that she has received lots of rave reviews for her debut novel.
 I enjoyed We Hunt the Flame, but not as much as I would have liked and perhaps my expectations for this book was too high. This fantasy debut novel is set in the Kingdom of Arawiya where its five caliphates can only be saved by an artifact that will restore magic once again to the land. We follow two perspectives, the hunter and the assassin, in alternating chapters. The Hunter is able to navigate the cursed forests in order to save his caliphate of Demenhur, which is covered in snow where there once was sand and its people are on the brink of starvation. Few know that the Hunter is actually a girl named Zafira, who is disguised as a man since women are perceived as tainted in Demenhur. Nasir is both prince and assassin, his targets the perceived enemies of his father, the tyrannical, abusive sultan. When Zafira is summoned to embark on a quest for the lost jewel, Nasir is sent after her, to take it and kill her. They are soon thrown together, first as enemies and then reluctant allies, by the secrets and whispers of an enemy who poses an even greater threat.
  I loved the world that the author created which is clearly inspired by ancient Arabia and has a vibe of the Assassin’s Creed video games. I liked the attention to detail, but sometimes it seems way too much and drags the plot down. My biggest problem with the book is its pacing issues. We spent a lot of time with Zafira and Nasir in their own settings where nothing happens and then suddenly in the last 50 pages or so of the book all the twists and major developments occur without any downtime to understand how it affects the characters. The themes of morality and understanding others beyond stereotypes are present throughout, which I really enjoyed. There is a large cast of characters and attempts at diversity among skin tones and various fantastical creatures are appreciated. There were times, however, where it was hard for me to keep up with who is who and some characters, particularly important secondary characters, are not well-fleshed-out but I think will hopefully be in the next book. We Hunt the Flame is an appealing fantasy and what is hopefully a growing genre outside of Eurocentric stories. I am curious to continue with the series and learn about the characters and their fates.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some minor language and strong violence. Recommended for Grades 8 and up.

If you like this book try: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Set in 1491 during the reign of the last sultanate in the Iberian peninsula, The Bird King is the story of Fatima, the only remaining Circassian concubine to the sultan, and her dearest friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker.

Hassan has a secret--he can draw maps of places he's never seen and bend the shape of reality. When representatives of the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrive to negotiate the sultan's surrender, Fatima befriends one of the women, not realizing that she will see Hassan's gift as sorcery and a threat to Christian Spanish rule. With their freedoms at stake, what will Fatima risk to save Hassan and escape the palace walls?

  As Fatima and Hassan traverse Spain with the help of a clever jinn to find safety, The Bird King asks us to consider what love is and the price of freedom at a time when the West and the Muslim world were not yet separate.

Review: The Bird King is a historical fantasy set during the final days of the Reconquista in Spain.  According to outsiders Fatima has had a relatively pampered life in the Alhabra palace, but Fatima has never experienced freedom, serving the sultan of Granada as his favorite concubine in the palace harem and his mother as her close companion. Her "security" is jeopardized as the sultan prepares to surrender his lands to Ferdinand and Isabella, rulers of the recently united Spain and she inadvertently betrays her beloved friend Hassan to the Inquisition, which believes him to be a sorcerer.
  Hassan is a gay cartographer who regularly prays and meditates and has a narrow but powerful magic: He can create new shortcuts between places with his maps as well as draw locations he has never seen, including some which don’t become real until he draws them. Fatima and Hassan make a desperate escape, aided by capricious jinn, but the Inquisition seems always to be just behind them. Their only possible refuge might lie in the fragment of an old poem called the Conference of Birds (a real and very popular Sufi poem in Persian) which the two companions have pored over since childhood, about the mysterious island of Qaf, hidden refuge of the king of birds.
  The Bird King started a bit slow for me, but once Fatima and Hassan were on the run I was easily pulled into Wilson's story. The world building is well-constructed, but I would have loved to have explored more of the jinns that Wilson created. I found the jinns to be fascinating. The real focus of the story however is the character development, particularly that of Fatima's growing understanding of the nature of freedom and responsibility. Wilson also delicately explores the concept of a love outside the physical through the complex and very genuine relationship shared by Fatima and Hassan. Luz, the Dominican lay sister who serves as an Inquistor for the Holy Office is terrifying and one questions her evil nature. As Fatima and Hassan reach the island of Qaf, the story also becomes an allegory of the contentious debate of immigration and freedom. Bringing all of today's relevant topics makes The Bird King a thoughtful and beautiful historical fantasy.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language, strong violence including a scene of attempted rape, disturbing images, and mentions of torture. Recommended for older teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, and Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Grandma wears it clasped under her chin. Aunty pins hers up with a beautiful brooch. Jenna puts it under a sun hat when she hikes. Zara styles hers to match her outfit. As a young girl observes six very different women in her life who each wear the hijab in a unique way, she also dreams of the rich possibilities of her own future, and how she will express her own personality through her hijab.

Review: The hijab or veil is the visual clue for the Islamic faith. It has been a source of controversy both within the Muslim community as well as the Western tradition. Hena Khan's beautifully diverse and illustrated picture book explores the various ways women wear or do not wear the hijab. A young, unnamed girl narrates and observes the women in her lives in public situations where they wear hijab and other situations where they do not. The narrator pays particularly close attention as to how the hijab revolves around the wearer's personality and their environment. For instance the narrator's Grandma's hijab is nicely folded when she is at work baking, but she fixes her hair in a bun when she is at home. Jaleel’s illustrations are vibrant, beautiful, and paired well with the text. I loved how the illustrator took note of the various ways a hijab is styled. Though there is no specific ethnicity mentioned, the reader can tell that the family is most likely multiracial as various characters have various skin tones. Body diversity and age are also mentioned in the story, which I appreciated. Under My Hijab is direct and simple to understand without hiding any nefarious agendas. An endnote provides further information about hijab, what the word means, when women choose to wear it, why they choose to wear it, and that some women, like the author of the book, choose not to wear it. I am so glad picture books like this are made available. I would love to see more book like this published.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None.

If you like this book try: Mommy's Khimar by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow

Description: A young girl plays dress up with her mother’s headscarves, feeling her mother’s love with every one she tries on. Charming and vibrant illustrations showcase the beauty of the diverse and welcoming community in this portrait of a young Muslim American girl’s life.

Review: This delightful picture book gives us a glimpse into a young African American Muslim girl’s family and community as she walks around in “Mommy’s khimar,” or headscarf. Our energetic main character loves wearing her mother's khimar, imagining it transforms her into a queen, a star, a mama bird, a superhero. Note how all of these imaginings are very different from the Western stereotypes of oppression. Adults in her life delight in her appearance in the bright yellow khimar, including her Arabic teacher at the mosque, who calls it a “hijab,” and her Christian grandmother, who visits after Sunday service and calls out “Sweet Jesus!” as she scoops her granddaughter into her arms. Though her grandmother practices a different religion, the family loves one another. The illustrations feature soft pastel colors with dynamic lines and gently patterned backgrounds that complement the story’s joyful tone. I also loved the addition of cultural details that will serve as mirrors to those who share the cheerful protagonist’s culture and a window that will enlighten readers who don’t. With a universal message of love and community, this book is a winner.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None.

If you like this book try: Yo Soy Muslim by Mark Gonzalez, Under My Hijab by Hena Khan
Rummanah Aasi
Description: A marvel: something you find amazing. Even ordinary-amazing. Like potatoes—because they make French fries happen. Like the perfect fries Adam and his mom used to make together.

An oddity: whatever gives you pause. Like the fact that there are hateful people in the world. Like Zayneb’s teacher, who won’t stop reminding the class how “bad” Muslims are. But Zayneb, the only Muslim in class, isn’t bad. She’s angry. When she gets suspended for confronting her teacher, and he begins investigating her activist friends, Zayneb heads to her aunt’s house in Doha, Qatar, for an early start to spring break. Fueled by the guilt of getting her friends in trouble, she resolves to try out a newer, “nicer” version of herself in a place where no one knows her. Then her path crosses with Adam’s.

Since he got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, Adam’s stopped going to classes, intent, instead, on perfecting the making of things. Intent on keeping the memory of his mom alive for his little sister. Adam’s also intent on keeping his diagnosis a secret from his grieving father. Alone, Adam and Zayneb are playing roles for others, keeping their real thoughts locked away in their journals. Until a marvel and an oddity occurs. Marvel: Adam and Zayneb meeting. Oddity: Adam and Zayneb meeting.

Review: I really enjoyed Ali's debut novel, Saints and Misfits, and was really looking to reading her contemporary romance Love from A to Z. Love from A to Z has all of the traits of what I love in a great contemporary romance: enjoyable characters, a coming of age story where the characters find themselves, a great setting, and of course romance. What elevates Love from A to Z for me personally is that it also unabashedly addresses Muslim identity and features two Muslim teens who fall in love. This is a love story which I found myself quite nicely represented.
   Zayneb Malik is a high school senior, hijabi though not extremely religious, who has high ambitions of attending the University of Chicago. When she gets suspended over an incident with an Islamophobic teacher, she starts her spring break early, leaving her town in Indiana to visit her aunt in Doha, Qatar. Her trip is an odd combination of relaxation while also giving her the chance to simmer her emotions down as Zayneb is very hot headed.
   Also on the way to Doha, via London, is Adam Chen, returning to his dad and sister. He stopped attending his college classes two months earlier after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the same illness his mother had, and instead he has been making various things. Interestingly, Adam and his remaining family converted to Islam when he was eleven years old or so. As Adam and Zayneb spend time together, their feelings for one another intensify.
  I love how the story is told in alternating viewpoints through the characters' journal entries, each divided into sections of Marvels and Oddities (the good and the bad). The journal entries allows the reader to get a closer look at Zayneb and Adam's emotions and thoughts. Ali does a great job in explaining how relationships work in an Islamic context as the two don't indulge in their physical desire, which is not easy. Muslim identity and culture are authentically and unapologetically infused throughout without overexplanation but are still accessible for a wide audience. Cultural appropriation, racism, the effects of war, and the impact of everyday Islamophobia are all explored with nuance. The only thing I wanted more from this book is the exploration of Zayneb's Islamophobic teacher. I also loved the inclusion of family, particularly that of Aunt Nandy who is not Muslim and Adam's kid sister. Love from A to Z is a great, diverse contemporary romance read.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, Islamophobic and racist comments. Recommended for Grades 8 and up.

If you like this book try:
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Doaa and her family leave war-torn Syria for Egypt where the climate is becoming politically unstable and increasingly dangerous. She meets and falls in love with Bassem, a former Free Syrian Army fighter and together they decide to leave behind the hardship and harassment they face in Egypt to flee for Europe, joining the ranks of the thousands of refugees who make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean on overcrowded and run-down ships to seek asylum overseas and begin a new life.
  After four days at sea, their boat is sunk by another boat filled with angry men shouting threats and insults. With no land in sight and surrounded by bloated, floating corpses, Doaa is adrift with a child’s inflatable water ring around her waist, while two little girls cling to her neck. Doaa must stay alive for them. She must not lose strength. She must not lose hope.

Review: A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea is a story of heartbreak, hope, and a human crisis. This memoir follows a teen Syrian refugee, Doaa Al Zamel’s perilous and personal journey to Europe in hopes of pursuing a future of peace and opportunities. Initially a subject of a TED talk by Melissa Fleming, the head of communications and chief spokesperson for the United High Commissioner for Refugees, the book expounds upon the topic. Doaa Al Zamel was only nineteen years old when she and her family flee from their homeland of Syria due to a civil war and a brutal government who crushed any opposition. The book gives a general yet clear understanding of the complexities of the ongoing Syrian civil war. The numbers of Syrian civilians who are either displaced or have been killed during the civil war is daunting and eye opening.
  We follow Doaa as she is awaken to the disparities of what has become of her homeland. She joined demonstrations and joined the rebellion which was sparked by the Arab Spring, but soon she realizes that revolution and the desire for change comes at a very high cost as her neighborhood is continuously shelled, held under martial law, and the lives of her family are at stake. The family seeks temporary shelter in Egypt, but soon the change of the Egyptian government had looked down upon refugees. The book has plenty of dark moments but there are also lighter ones such as Doaa finding love in the very unlikely place and hope once again bloomed in her heart for a new chance at life in Europe.
  Doaa left with the vaguely formed idea of making her way to asylum in Europe. The trip nearly cost her life. In the hands of smugglers, beset by rough seas and pirates, she survived a horrific shipwreck, so far among the deadliest in the annals of illegal migration from Africa to Europe. With the exception of a handful of survivors, all the other refugees including her fiance, died from either drowning, hypothermia, and/or dehydration. Set adrift at sea for four days, she barely survived while also saving the life of a toddler, earning awards from humanitarian agencies and calling renewed attention to the plight of refugees from Syria. Finally resettled in Sweden, Doaa’s story is one of the few refugee tales that seem to have a happy ending yet her struggles are far from over.
  I like how this book is very upfront and puts a personal face to a humanitarian crisis. There is no sentimentality attached to the story. Doaa is not propped as a role model from the get go. She is human who has flaws such as a being incredibly stubborn and having a bad temper. She is an ordinary woman who has gone through extraordinary and tragic events in her life. Her ordinariness is extremely important and a reminder for everyone to see that a refugee is a human being and no different from you and I. She is not a terrorist nor is she out to snatch away anyone's benefits, jobs, or rights away from them, but a symbol of hope. Doaa's story reminds us that a refugee is a human being not any other label that people attach to it, but an individual that wants freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are scenes of sexual harassment, attempted sexual assault, strong violence of war, and disturbing images. Recommended for teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: The Unwanted by Don Brown, Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab
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