The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi Is a Genre-Defying, Propulsive Fantasy RompBooks Reviews s.a. chakraborty
Usually, you know what you’re getting with a pirate story. Swordfights, rum, probably some treasure, maybe a little misogyny, and generally the sort of grizzled, damaged characters who, as the kids say, have seen some shit. This is a big part of the reason that Shannon Chakraborty’s The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi feels like a breath of fresh air: It’s a story that pushes back against everything these kinds of tales are known for. A delightfully wry and self-aware romp, this first installment in a new fantasy series from the critically acclaimed author of the Daevabad trilogy is, more than anything else, simply fun.
It follows the story of its titular heroine, a retired former pirate with a legendary reputation as everything from a coldblooded murderer to a powerful witch who must return to her seafaring ways when the wealthy mother of a former crew member flushes her out of hiding and offers her a life-changing fortune to find her missing granddaughter, Dunya. Tempted by the thought of fully securing her daughter’s financial future and returning to a life that offers her something more than the chance to tend home and hearth, Amina accepts and immediately sets out to put the proverbial band back together in the form of her old crew. There’s Dalila, a potions master who loves both her Christian god and experiments with things that explode; Tinbu, who took over the Marwati when Amina retired and dotes on the ship’s ineffectual mouser Payasam; and Majed, the incredibly talented former navigator who’s now trying to live a life on the straight and narrow after a falling out with his former nakhudha.
What follows is one part traditional heist story and one part magical adventure, as Amina reunites with her old colleagues, returns to her former ship, and begins the process of figuring out where Dunya might have gone, a journey that sees them face off not just against prison guards and fellow pirates, but a Frankish ex-Crusader who dabbles in sorcery. There’s also a complicated mystery about a legendary, possibly divine artifact, frequent encounters with magically manipulated creatures, and sweeping sea battles brought to life in vivid and tense detail.
A swashbuckling adventure with genuine stakes and richly developed oddball characters whose found family of misfits vibe is endlessly charming, the novel’s brisk pace and dry self-deprecating narrative style (the story is framed as Amina recounting—and commenting on—her life story for a scribe) help the pages fly by, and Chakraborty’s detailed, immersive worldbuilding makes the various villages and island of her medieval Islamic world sing with life. But what truly makes The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi stand out is its heroine.
In fantasy tales like this, the story’s central figure is almost always a young woman on some sort of journey of self-discovery, who grows into the person she’s meant to become along the way. Chakraborty’s Amina, in contrast, is a middle-aged mother who has lived an entire life before this book’s title page—surviving dangers, exploring her beliefs, and having her flaws made all too plain to her. She has a checkered past, a young daughter she adores, a bum knee, and a laundry list of things she’d do differently if given the chance. This isn’t the beginning of her story.
Throughout this novel, Amina is still living with the consequences of the choices she made when she was younger and felt untouchable. Her rededication to her Muslim faith is in large part about atonement and penance for the choices she made them. Her relationships with her crew are steeped in shared history and mistakes. Her reputation may seem fantastical, but it’s one she came by honestly and she carries the emotional and physical scars to prove it. It’s a perspective and a character type we see very infrequently in this genre, which is why Amina feels like a revelation from the book’s first pages.
In fact, it is her rich and varied life experiences that make her such a compelling figure to lead this novel. It’s obvious that while Amina adores her daughter and would do anything to keep her safe, she’s also chafing under the restriction of a so-called normal life. Back on the sea, on the ship she loves like a family member, Amina remembers herself: How much she loves the sea, how much her crewmates matter to her, how much genuine enjoyment she takes from a life of risk and adventure where her profits (of both a monetary and reputational variety) come simply because she is that good at what she does. Yet, it’s equally apparent that, as this series continues, this is the dichotomy that may well tear Amina apart emotionally, especially given that she’s keeping more than a few fairly important secrets from her daughter about her heritage (including the identity of her father.)
The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi is not necessarily groundbreaking fiction, and though it certainly touches on issues of class, colonization, and oppression, it has fewer broad philosophical and political debates than Chakraborty’s previous trilogy. Yet, it’s easy to find yourself swept up in the surprisingly joyful ride that Amina’s story, which is a tale about friendship and family much as it is about pirates, monsters, and the quest for powerful ancient relics. And it’ll leave you eager for a chance to go adventuring with its (in)famous titular character again.
The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.