Each day, Abu Nuwas sits in the bazaar telling stories to anyone who will give him food or coin. Nadja walks the same bazaar, selling tiny bags of spices. Beginning with a single tale of how Setara found a djinn in exchange for a single bag of spice, their friendship grows.
Setara is a rich merchant’s daughter who dreams of a life beyond the safe walls of her father’s compound. When her first taste of adventure turns out to be less pleasant than she expected, she realises a djinn who really cares about her welfare might cause more trouble than one that twists wishes for its own amusement.
The novel is formed of two parallel narratives: the mundane challenges of being a poor spice girl, and the fantastical adventures of a classical Arabic hero. Switching between one and the other with the same regard for cliffhangers as Scheherazade, Dasef hooks the reader while telling them to their face that Setara’s adventures are mere artifice. This shifting between gritty reality and high fantasy also acts as a palate cleanser, preventing the extremes of either from losing impact due to familiarity.
For the most part, Dasef’s portrayal of Arabic legend strikes a solid balance between unique details of the culture and tropes common to all people, making it accessible without being merely Western fantasy in turbans. However, some readers might find Setara’s dialogue too accessible in places: while the diction of a modern teenager is greatly more digestible than the convolution of Vathek and some other manufactured Arabesque fantasies, it can seem out-of-place against a background of devious viziers and flying horses.
Apart from this potential anachronism, Setara is a well-written protagonist: both sympathetic and archetypally heroic. Filled with stories and hope at the start, as each adventure proceeds she gains both strength and wisdom without losing her fundamental innocence.
Conversely, Nadja starts the book both strong and realistic through necessity, but lacking in hope. Echoing without mirroring Setara’s emotional journey, she struggles to reconcile her love for Abu Nawas’ tales with the sense that she should be doing something more productive than listen.
Although the bazaar is the real world, it is also a framing device for the tales, producing the ironic—yet appropriate—situation of supporting characters in the real world being written in broad strokes while those in the fantasy are rendered in nuanced detail.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. I recommend it to readers seeking an alternative to Western fantasy.
I received a free copy from the author in exchange for a fair review.