Thursday, February 22, 2024

Microreview: The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi, by Shannon Chakraborty

The gang is reunited to buckle some swashes, but they sure took their time getting to the good bits

The hook of S. A. Chakraborty’s newest offering ticks all my boxes: Piracy and magic and spirits and daevas? Ships and trade and 12th century Islamic world? A middle-aged mother who has Lived A Life is strong-armed out of her peaceful domestic retirement into taking One Last Job? Please and thank you, yes, may I have some more?

The story is told from the perspective of Amina Al-Sirafi, who made a name for herself in her youth as the most ruthless, terrifying pirate captain in the Arab world. Tales of her feats are known everywhere:  She is tall, fights like a man, has gold in her teeth and scars on her arm. She poisoned a feast during trade talks in order to rob the attendees; she stole horses from the emir of Hormuz. She robbed Chinese envoys of their cargo and stole their ship while they slept through it all, only to awake drifting in the sea on dinghies. She is not to be trifled with. 

 Or was not to be trifled with. Now, though, she just wants to be left alone to live quietly and raise her beloved daughter, secluded and hidden from the girl’s father, who is clearly bad news of some sort. (The exact badness of his news is kept an irritating secret from the reader, but not a terribly secret secret; I'd figured it out by page 49.) So when a wealthy woman whose daughter has been kidnapped comes to hire Amina to find the daughter, she knows exactly which pressure points to push to make Amina take the job: threaten her quiet retirement, and make it known where the fabled pirate captain now lives. Of course Amina takes the job---and since deep down she misses the old life, the excitement, the seafaring adventures, it’s not a complete catastrophe. One last job. One terrific pay-out. Then she’ll definitely absolutely retire for real. No fooling. Absotively posilutely. Forget that this is marketed as Book 1 of a trilogy. Just one last job, that's all.

From here the plot proceeds in two halves. In the first bit, Amina gets the gang back together. She must track down her old ship and her old crew and get them on board (hah) with her new endeavour. Friends must be sprung from prisons, ships must be stolen from soldiers, and poisoners and cartographers must be persuaded to give up their own comfortable retirements to help Amina find the kidnapped child.  Next, once the gang is all gathered, Amina and company set out to rescue the child. And since the child has been kidnapped by a collector of magical artifacts, with his own plans for how to use them to his advantage, things get real magical real fast.

This book delivers on all of its promises. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book that provides so fully and completely everything that it promised on the tin. We have sea battles, heists, poisoners, and trips to the world of the Unseen where trees grow people as fruit and court finery includes cloaks of porcupine quills. We meet loyal friends, ambiguous former lovers, mysterious (sexy) strangers, teenage waifs with hidden depths, and a ship’s cat who is so bad at being a cat that it clearly is hiding some other secret. From the midpoint to the end, this book is a sterling example of the sort of historical Arab-centered fantasy that Chakraborty did so well in her previous Daevabad trilogy.

The problem is that in the first half, the Getting-The-Gang-Back-Together-Again half, I found myself chafing a bit, getting restless. Some of these relate to my own personal preferences in reading fantasy, but some of it reflects a slight clumsiness in execution.

I understand exactly what Chakraborty was doing in this bit. She has chosen a wonderful, underused (in western fantasy at least) setting for her story. The medieval Arab world is this delightful mishmash of cultures and languages and peoples, trades going east to China and India, south to Madagascar, north to the Mediterranean. The cities of Aden, of Socotra, Mombasa—these are wonderful, vibrant, exciting settings. By sailing from place to place to gather up her old comrades, Amina is taking the reader on a tour of this world, allowing us to visit the markets, run into the local governments, learn about the world that is so different from the more familiar knights-and-stone-castles of medieval Europe historical fantasy settings.

This approach also allows us to sink into the character histories some more. We learn about Amina’s previous exploits in the regions, we see her thinking about her youth, reflecting on what she has learned and what she wants from her future, having conversations about growing up and growing older with her former (and once-more) shipmates. Structurally, it is a very effective decision.

But, see, it’s boring. There’s only so much navel-gazing about responsibilities as a parent conflicting with one’s desire for adventure that I can take before I start wanting less talk and more plot. And this was a little bit over that line. Not a lot. But a little.

The other issue with this first half of the book is something that is really, really hard to get right, but which must be addressed in historical fantasy. And that is the importation of modern progressive values into a very, very different world. Slavery was a thing in the 12th century Middle East. Women didn’t have much freedom. Queer people and trans people existed, and did not always have an easy time of it. Previously, if such issues were addressed in a historical fantsy, they were folded into the worldview of the narrator and characters, because ‘historical accuracy’. More modern texts don’t accept the presumed worldview of a person ‘of the time’ so blithely, and so must find a way for their characters—who absolutely are ‘of the time’—to be people that won’t come across as despicable bigots to a modern reader.  

This is a hard task. It’s true that we often assume a sort of knee-jerk reactionary worldview in historical fantasy that isn’t actually all that historically accurate, but it’s also undeniable that a 12th century pirate captain is not going to be flying a rainbow flag and speaking the language of trans rights. There’s a balance to be struck. And Chakraborty works very, very hard to strike that balance. Amina knows about the practice of slavery and abhors it. She knows that some of her crewmates are gay, learns that one is trans, and accepts it easily. There’s nothing in Amina’s head that would, I think, offend the modern reader. Chakraborty makes sure of it. She’s very careful. I can tell. She’s doing her job. 

 And that’s the problem—not that Chakraborty’s doing her job, but that I can tell she’s doing her job. It doesn’t feel organic. It feels careful. It feels attentive. It feels like there were sensitivity readers consulted. It feels calculated.

In a way this criticism might be unfair. What else is Chakraborty supposed to do? Not consult sensitivity readers? Not acknowledge that slavery was a thing and queer and trans people existed in this setting? Make her heroine a bigot who accepts injustices unthinkingly? Of course not! But all the same, the seams of her process showed a bit more obviously in these bits than they did in the swashbuckling action, the descriptions of the world of the Unseen, the parry and thrust of the villains and heroes, the negotiations with the daevas. The bits that felt smooth and natural and engrossing and enchanting were all in the second half. The bits that felt laboured and slow were all in the first half. The half without magic.



Nerd coefficient: 7/10, an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws

  • Pirates

  • Medieval Arab world

  • Daevas

  • Modern worldviews in medieval minds


Chakraborty, Shannon. The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi [Harper Voyager, 2023].

CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at