Pirates, Peris, Krakens, and Ancient Magic

Author: S.A. Chakraborty 

Amina al-Sirafi has led a life of power and adventure, delicious scandal, stolen treasures, last minute escapes, and all the pleasures and tortures of the lawless high seas. But now she is beyond that. She is retired, hiding from enemies, separated from her crew, a good, quite Muslim woman, saddened but ultimately content raising her daughter, restoring her mother’s broken farm, living a normal, slow life.

When an unlikely stranger arrives at her hidden home with a proposition and a threat, however, Amina is forced back into her old life one more time. She must track down this stranger’s kidnapped granddaughter and return her. But as Amina collects her old crew and begins to unravel the full story, it becomes clear that something else far more deadly is going on. The stakes are no longer returning a stolen girl but stopping an insidious black magic. Can Amina do it – will she risk everything, including her own family? What does she know of this ancient evil, this force that is gathering power, and how can she confront that last voyage, that moment of her past that haunts her still?

I discovered Chakraborty through her City of Brass trilogy with its complicated politics, empathetic jinn, and intense relationships. It’s hard – probably impossible – to once again create characters that multifaceted, that messed-up and lovable, that ultimately conflicted. But, I am here for anything that comes from the clever and imaginative pen of Chakraborty, and if that means it’s time to do some deep-sea diving with a semi-repentant pirate, a crew of scallywags, a clever-tongued demon looking to make a deal, and a kraken-like monster, then SIGN ME UP.

The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi follows the same motif as City of Brass, melding ancient history, alongside that Scheherazade-like stuff-of-legends storytelling, occasionally adding a flair of modernism. The modernism that worked well in City of Brass, however, ultimately throws us out of the historical setting here multiple times. But more on that later. Let’s meet Amina first.

Nari in City of Brass was a heroine with some bite. She didn’t mind stealing and, when the mood took her, tangling with some unknown magic to make a quick buck. But Amina is another entity all together, a more grown-up, more complicated, more worldly villain. Amina is a foul-mouthed lady pirate, after all, and while there is some honor among her thieves, she is certainly more complicated and more willing to turn a blind eye than Nari. Ripping people off is not enough. Amina steals big time. She kills. And then there is the issue of her marrying . . . well, let’s not spoil that one. Amina is more of a traditional villain with a code, ultimately good at her diamond-in-the-rough core.  There are certain things she won’t do – like betrayal her crew. But everything else . . . well, morality is an awfully convenient spectrum, no?

In some ways, though, this felt forced, whereas it came naturally for Nari and her djinn lover, Dara, Amina seems a little too clean cut and repentant in her thoughts and attitudes to be the super tough pirate we are supposed to expect. I suppose this is the challenge of creating a character who is just bad enough to be a rebel without being bad enough to tip into the we-don’t-empathize-with-them category. It’s not flawless yet, but I can see it getting there.

As the adventure progresses and we begin to meet the crew, Amina’s past literarily comes back to haunt her. Her last marriage was . . . well . . . a mistake. Her husband, presumed dead, is inconveniently back. Let’s just say he is a supernatural baddie with a vendetta, but circumstances are forcing Amina to travel with him. This oscillation between the present action and the past defines the book and is a little more jarring than the forward progression of City of Brass. The past holds the most intense moments here, and I often found myself more interested in the story of Amina meeting her ersatz husband than the forward action.

But everything changes once we get our backdrop, and the crew discovers who this mystery granddaughter is and why she has left. It seems that she hasn’t run away but has instead accidentally joined forces with a powerful sorcerer intent on the usual world domination, alongside some epic scenes of unnecessary carnage.

After we get past all the introductory floundering and the magic gets pumping, it’s mostly gold. We visit the kingdom of the Peris (a truly brilliant set of chapters), we get a few cameos of the krakens, we travel with a demon of chaos, and we confront an ancient artifact with the power of the moon.

But then, there is the silly side character of the granddaughter, who is an expert at all things old magic, yet is literarily surprised when the sorcerer uses dark magic designed to kill and steal life forces to . . . well . . . kill and steal life forces. Seriously? What else did she think he’d use them for? Cutting the line at Starbucks? Her explanation of thinking it was just “poetry” is beyond ridiculous. This is your magical expert? Get a refund, evil sorcerer dude. Use that 30-day money back guarantee.

And then, we’re supposed to feel sorry for the granddaughter, who openly wants to transition to a man (something that seems unlikely for the time period), and so the author and the characters literarily forgive the swathes of people she “accidentally” kills. There is even a moment where Amina stops the action to honor the granddaughter’s potential desire for new pronouns . . . instead of asking her where TF the ancient magical evil stuff is hidden and making sure the villain can’t, you know, easily grab it and destroy the entire world while they have a heart-to-heart.  So – feeling that she was born into the wrong body and having an attraction to women makes it ok to, you know, literarily kill everyone in the world? To unleash unholy magic “accidentally.” And no one is mad about this, or about the many, many, many times they have to drop everything and risk their own lives to save her. Or about how totally careless she is with ancient evil magical artifacts. Really? And yet, these are big bad pirates who kill people for less? *ahem* logical flaw, logical flaw.

All in all, The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafa is a great (if not perfect) start to a new series. It’s got all those lovely legends and magic blazing in fantastical colors. It’s got betrayals and complications, dangerous agreements and dastardly villains, supernatural lands and entities with ancient, inhuman agendas, and some pirating to boot! The characters aren’t fully there yet, and there are some odd moments of logical flaws in a story bolstered by fantasy and usually immune to such things, but this diamond, flawed as it is, still glitters fiercely in the hot Mediterranean sun. I’ll be back for the sequel.


– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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