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Nathan’s review of The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakroborty 

Shannon Chakraborty is back with an all-new trilogy, this time with a historical fantasy story set on the shores of the Indian Ocean during the twelfth Century. Amina Al-Sirafi, a retired pirate who only wants to settle down with her young daughter, is tasked by a rich and powerful woman to find her granddaughter who has been kidnapped by the terrifying Frank. As she reunites her old pirating crew, Amina encounters more magic, danger, and terrifyingly massive sea monsters than she could ever could have anticipated.

There are a lot of things to love about the The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi, so I’ll try and be brief so as to not gush too much!

This book works because Chakraborty fills the story with so many fully realized and fleshed out characters. Amina’s pirate crew is filled to the brim with people that feel real, all with their own quirks, goals, and desires. Dalila may have been my favorite of the crew members; she is their Master of Poisoners who has never met a situation where a little “wildcard” action will fail you! This book isn’t massive, and yet in a short amount of time Chakraborty introduces several crewmates who actually feel like they have a history. Their interactions throughout the book are so organic. These are people who used to work together but have since moved on to their own lives; we’ve all been there where we’re a bit weird around each other because we know who we used to be and not who we are. Chakraborty absolutely nails all of these wonderful little moments of warmth but also awkwardness that gave such depth and history to these characters.

The villains are appropriately heinous, and the Frank himself is kept mysteriously and terrifyingly at arm’s length. This gives him a larger-than-life villainous persona, while still feeling like his belongs in this historical setting. One of the secondary-villains-but-not-really (I won’t give anything else away) also became one of my favorite characters, especially as we learned more about their utterly toxic-but-I-love-it past.

But I cannot talk about the characters without talking about the star of the show, Amina Al-Sirafi herself. Amina is a protagonist unlike any I have ever read in fiction before. First of all, she’s an older protagonist which is rare in fantasy. She’s fierce, funny, and will do anything to protect her family. But she also comes with her own failings. She has a complicated relationship with her own Muslim faith, her several ex-husbands, and some of her own internal prejudices and biases [readers should be aware there is one scene of transphobia; Chakraborty is obviously using this to criticize transphobia and show how her characters are imperfect, but just thought some might want to be aware].

In addition to the wonderful characters, Chakraborty’s prose and descriptions will definitely transport you back to the 12th century coasts of the Indian Ocean. This world came to life with so much character and nuance. Part of its liveliness came from the simple fact that we get so few historical fantasies set in the Arabic/Muslim world, but most of it comes from Chakraborty’s beautiful writing. The book is set up as a history of Amina Al-Sirafi herself, and the book is told from her first-person POV to another person who is writing her story. Some of the chapters end with a kind of in-world “interlude” that gives you background on some of the history of the magical people and objects.

This also works wonderfully for an exciting and bingeable read. I flew through this book once I got into it. I will say that the beginning is a bit slow; there is little magic and there is a lot of time where Amina just goes around trying to convince her old pirate crew to go on one last adventure with her. But once it gets moving the plot doesn’t let up. There are evil sorcerers, weird creepy bird judges, and more that make for an exciting journey. And yes, the giant sea monster depicted on the US cover of the book plays a big role in a couple of the real exciting action sequences! Chakraborty injects the book with deep themes of prejudice, fighting for your own place in the world, and more, but she never loses the fun sense of adventure on the high seas.

There are only two small quibbles I had with Amina Al-Sirafi, one of which was very much a “me” thing and not a fault with the book, and one that I think kept this from being an all-time five star read.

The “me” issue is that this book was surprisingly land-based for a book about pirates. Yes, there are descriptions of ships and they go sailing, but readers should not expect a whole lot of seafaring. Readers looking for their next Liveship Traders or Tide Child Trilogy might not get the nautical fantasy fix that they were anticipating (and if you haven’t read those and want nautical fantasy, go check them out!). Again, I don’t blame Chakraborty for this; I just had to adjust my expectations based on what this book actually was versus what I wanted the book to be.

My only what I will call “legitimate” complaint about the book is that it felt like its main purpose for existing was just setting up the rest of the trilogy. Yes, ok, I know that’s what all first books in series are supposed to be. But this very much felt like the “pilot” of a TV show. There is a plot, but the plot is just there to kick start the rest of the adventure. It kind of felt like what happened in this book could have been condensed down considerably, and then jumped into the actual story that Chakraborty obviously intends to tell. I’m being intentionally vague here since saying what this “set up” is would be a spoiler, but it just a small little thing that didn’t quite sit right with me. On the plus side, however, the main plot of this book is pretty nicely resolved so while it sets the scenes for future books, this book doesn’t leave you on too massive a cliffhanger.

However, despite these two small little criticisms of the book, I still highly enjoyed my time traveling around West and South Asia with Amina Al-Sirafi and her crew. I cannot wait to jump back in when Chakraborty releases the next book in the series.

Concluding Thoughts: The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi is an exciting and immersive historical fantasy that introduces one of my new all-time favorite fantasy characters. Chakraborty plays with the tropes of nautical fantasies, McGuffins, and magical heists in her unique re-envisioning of the medieval Muslim world. You will fall in love with this imperfect band of pirates, and there are plenty of characters you can love to hate. Fans of fun but complicated characters and grand adventures should pick this one up.

Thank you for reading my review of The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi!

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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