Two new female-helmed YA fantasy novels draw from South Asian folklore and traditions. Whether you’re looking for a romantic and roguish tale set in an alternate India or a magical warring djinn story set along the Silk Road, these stories will keep readers on the edges of their seats.
In The Tiger at Midnight, Swati Teerdhala’s first installment in a new series, an assassin and a soldier cross paths on a fateful night, setting off a tense game of cat and mouse. Esha is the Viper, a legendary killer for the Dharkan rebels, and her target is General Hotha, leader of the Jansan army. When Esha arrives to find the general already mortally wounded, she realizes she is being framed. Esha rushes to escape the crime scene, and she is followed by a select crew of Jansan soldiers. Most of these young men are at the disadvantage, not knowing that the Viper is a woman, except for Kunal. Kunal was raised by his uncle, the General, since the rest of his family’s death in the coup 10 years ago. He already suspects that the Viper is the compelling girl he met outside the fort on the night of his Uncle’s murder, and he soon determines that his hunch was correct. Her identity discovered, Esha and Kunal cross paths throughout Jansa, engaging in banter and developing a delicate code of honor as they fight, save, betray and escape one another.
While journeying, Kunal’s eyes are opened to the growing environmental disaster and spread of poverty in Jansa’s towns, causing him to doubt the work of the military he’s spent his life serving. Meanwhile, Esha struggles with feeling that her self-identity has been consumed by the personality of the Viper, and wonders if there’s hope for a life untethered from death and deception. A fascinating world with a landscape dependent on a mystical blood bond between humans and nature surrounds the characters, but the reality of the environmental disaster isn’t woven into the plot as well as it could be. A hint of intriguing myth and history runs through this debut, but most of the novel is spent on an enemies-to-lovers romance. Whether readers love or loathe this trope will determine their enjoyment of this #ownvoices debut.
Nafiza Azad’s The Candle and the Flame is a magical tale based on Arab and Muslim djinn folklore that is set in a vibrant city spanning two climates and encompassing a multitude of faiths and peoples. When Fatima was very small, the Shayateen, a race of chaotic djinn, attacked her family’s caravan along the Silk Road. Years later, the Shayateen launched an unprecedented attack within the walled city of Noor, killing every human but Fatima, her adopted sister and an elderly woman. Fatima and her companions survived because Fatima’s blood proved deadly to the Shayateen, though Fatima has never known why. After that night, the maharajah has relied upon the aid of the Ifrit, the djinn of order, who have controlled half the city of Noor—and protected the whole of it—ever since.
Now a young woman, Fatima spends her days working as a delivery girl and studying with an elderly djinn bookseller, Firdaus. But when disaster befalls Firdaus, Fatima realizes he was not just any djinn and Fatima is then reborn as something new. Pulled into a world of politics, ancient grudges and magic, Fatima struggles to hold onto loved ones while becoming closer to the Ifrit, especially Zulfikar, the Emir of Noor City.
Utilizing multiple narrative points of view with an excellent supporting cast (including djinn and humans), Azad shows a deep understanding of the folklore and culture that inspires her plot. Readers are immersed in both the human and djinn culture, and they are trusted to follow along without unnecessary exposition in this mature and sure-handed debut. A satisfying ending will allow Fatima’s story to stand alone, but intriguing open-ended plot points make it possible for Azad to continue the story of Noor and its world. Readers looking for fresh plots, enticing settings and strong female characters will sincerely hope she does.