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The Candle and the Flame

by Nafiza Azad

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292490,038 (3.6)8
Fatima lives in the city of Noor, on the Silk Road, which is currently protected by the Ifrit, djinn of order and reason, from attacks by the violent and ruthless Shayateen djinn--but Fatima was infused with the fire of the Ifrit who died saving her when she was four years old, and when one of the most important Ifrit dies she finds herself drawn into the intrigues of the court, the affairs of the djinn, and the very real dangers of a magical battlefield.… (more)

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This book definitely suffers for having been read immediately after Sujata Massey's The Satapur Moonstone. They're very different stories, but the similarities they possess—a multicultural but Central and South Asian-influenced setting, royalty, political intrigue, flawed but engaging characters, a touch of romance, subtle social commentary—left me all too aware of what The Candle and the Flame could've been and wasn't.

This isn't a bad book by any means—in fact, I liked it quite a bit—but it falls prey to some of the narrative and characterization pitfalls that tend to plague debut novels. For instance, much of the worldbuilding and atmosphere of the novel is built on info-dumping paragraphs and a clutter of unfamiliar vocabulary. I'm all for learning new words and being immersed in an unknown culture, especially in a fantasy novel, but I shouldn't have to consult the glossary (where I frequently failed to find the words I was looking for) five times in a single paragraph. Not when Azad could be building a vivid context for those words into the paragraph, itself. And in her eagerness to showcase the strength of her female characters, Azad ends up portraying the men as flawed and always in the wrong, while her lady protagonists are flawed but always right.

And then there's the third person present tense of the narrative. This isn't something I see often outside of fanfiction, and even those pieces tend to be poignant, eloquent shorts that make the most of third person present's lyrical potency. Azad manages to sustain a poetic immediacy through most of the novel, but when she fails—I'm loath to quote a specific example since I read an ARC, but these moments revolve around pedestrian verbs like "sees" and "walks" and "thinks"—the book snaps into screenplay mode, losing all its emotional momentum.

I had to do so much work whilst reading this that I found it difficult to stay engaged with the elements I enjoyed (the world, the character dynamics, the evocative prose), a feeling all the more intense for being juxtaposed against the complete opposite experience in the book I'd read immediately before this one. I do look forward to seeing what Azad writes in the future, though. ( )
  slimikin | Mar 27, 2022 |
It’s probably more of a 3.75 but I’m rounding up.

I really didn’t know much about this book and I only became interested because of that gorgeous cover and the vague idea that it’s based on Muslim culture. But what happened between the pages of this really surprised me and I can say confidently that it’s been a while since that has happened in a YA fantasy.

I’m not usually someone who looks for atmospheric world building but am more satisfied by extensive magic systems, but this world of Noor really blew my mind. The author brings this beautiful city to life through her words and I was completely mesmerized and felt myself a part of it every step of the way. Every little thing like the food, the culture, the faith, the customs, the clothes are explained in their glorious detail and I lapped it all up. The supernatural element of the Djinn, their way of life and especially the significance of their naming was explained wonderfully and I really enjoyed their story. Even the differences between the various clans of the Djinn, their inherent natures of order and chaos are told through different perspectives, so we as a reader can decide what we feel about them. The author also does a spectacular job showing us how a true multicultural city feels like, with its amalgamation of cultures and people, everyone living in harmony, preserving their own cultures while also sharing it with others. I don’t think I’ve really read about a more amazing place before and Noor is going to be one of my favorite fantasy worlds for the foreseeable future. But above it all, my favorite part of this book was the inherent desiness of it. The author doesn’t shy away from extensively using Hindi and Urdu words to describe every facet which totally delighted me - I could smell the food and picture the gorgeous saris and ghagras and experience the joy of celebrating Deepavali.

This book is full of amazing characters, especially the women and I can’t talk enough about them. Fatima Ghazala has seen a lot of loss in her life, but she is ready to brave more to ensure the protection of her family and the people of her city. She may just be an ordinary citizen who has discovered her latent powers, but that doesn’t mean she will ever let anyone else make decisions for her or let go of her self esteem. I was in awe of her strength even in the most desperate of times. Her sister Sunaina is conflicted about Fatima’s newfound abilities which leads to some strain in their relationship but I liked the way they worked for it, and never let each other go. The Alif sisters and their parents are like found family and I absolutely adored their bond. The sisters bring much needed levity to this story with their hilarious bickering and banter, and their parents become defacto parents for Fatima and Sunaina, always making sure they are taken care of.

On the other hand Princess Bhavya is living in a gilded cage and all she wants is the freedom to live her life. While she came across as unlikable initially, we slowly get to know her better and realize all her petulance is only a defense mechanism. Her brother Aarush, the maharajah of Noor is a good person but not a natural leader. I could sympathize with him a bit, but couldn’t absolve him of his indecisiveness. Zulfikar is the Emir of Noor and representative of the Ifrit, and he is definitely a responsible leader but pretty stoic, and I didn’t feel like I got to know him much.

The romance between Fatima Ghazala and Zulfikar felt both like instalove and not, the bond between them borne out of magic and holding a lot of uncertain feelings on both sides - it took a long time for them to trust each other with their feelings and I loved this dynamic between them. There is a lot of push and pull, a developing friendship, forced proximity due to their responsibilities - I loved how all these tropes were executed so beautifully together.

This is a very slow paced politics driven fantasy, with hardly any action but I slowly fell in love with it. Despite there being rebellion and traitors in the royal court, I loved how the author subverted these usual fantasy tropes. The purpose of this story is not to find who the villains are (they are pretty obvious), but to let us think about what it means to be a leader, a King. We see how competent and decisive women can’t rule the kingdom because of misogynistic rules but an unwilling man remains King, whose inability to make personal sacrifices and be decisive may spell doom for his people. We also see how faith is described as just a part of the daily life of the characters, and not something that separates them from the others. The ownvoices Muslim representation is spot on and I appreciated how much Fatima’s daily prayers are as much a part of her as are her powers. This book is all about women - their love and friendships, their need for freedom and to be able to make choices, to not feel objectified or treated as a possession. We also see the manifestation of all kinds of female strength, both alone and in numbers, physically and in their silences - and this is what elevates this book to more than just a typical YA fantasy. I also particularly enjoyed the discussions around the value of a found family, the importance of forgiveness, and the choice to make sacrifices for the sake of others.

This is a very quiet kind of fantasy novel. We have court politics, rebels and supernatural creatures, but it is more about the humans, their lives and the choices they make everyday. If you are looking for a slow paced, very atmospheric fantasy novel with ownvoices Muslim representation and lots of desi elements, then this book is perfect for you. This may not be action packed, but it will definitely make you feel and think and hope. ( )
  ksahitya1987 | Aug 20, 2021 |
{Stand-alone. YA, fantasy, Eastern fantasy, djinn} (2019)

The prologue opens with Ghazala, an ifrit (a djinni of fire who can take human form), mourning the loss of her small daughter and consequently sacrificing herself to save a human child by giving her her fire.

Part one paints the city of Noor for us fourteen years later where Fatima, the girl who was saved, now lives with her adopted older sister, Sunaina, after they and an elderly lady were the only survivors after the Shayateen (another race of djinn) attacked the city five years previously. Since then, other refugees from other lands have moved into the city and life goes on.

We also see the rulers of Noor; the human maharaja and his family as well as the ifrit Emir and Wazir. When the Shayateen attacked, the then maharaja called in a favour from the ifrit to protect the city. Unfortunately, the call came too late and the maharaja died. The ifrit, who seek to bring order to chaos, stayed on to protect the city and the current maharaja honours the deal that his father made. However, there are other humans who resent the presence of the ifrit in their city (and in other cities, which we don't visit).

Fatima and her sister live and work in the poorer part of the city and have managed to afford an apartment so they no longer live on the streets. Fatima works as a messenger, delivering letters and packages to different parts of the city. Her favourite place to go is Firdaus's bookshop (although he never seems to sell any books) where she often delivers books to him.

The books on the shelves of the mahal library all belong to the Name Giver, who, in Zulfikar‘s private opinion, has gone out of control where his book buying is concerned.*

He treats her like family, although he is actually an ifrit in human shape, and teaches her languages and other subjects. But one day, something happens which triggers the hidden fire in Fatima to surface and she becomes Fatima Ghazala, someone who is neither Fatima nor Ghazala but a combination of both.

In part two, we see that the person Fatima Ghazala has become is, while outside their previous experience, someone with powers that the ifrit need for them to continue living on earth. They also need her powers rather urgently for their Raees, the leader of the ifrit, to be able to cross to earth from Al-Naar, the plane of the djinn.

Suddenly, her vision darkens, and the two soldiers standing before her fade into shadowy outlines. Each of them has a golden name embedded in the skin above their hearts. Each name has a different meaning, a different shape. The soldier on the right, his name is Qais; firm, lonely, and loyal. The qualities that compose this Ifrit are in his name. The soldier on the left is Masrur: happy and carefree, content to let life lead him where it chooses. The names glint, and upon a closer look, Fatima realizes that hundreds of gold tensile strings extend from the names and appear to shape the Ifrit who are no longer shadowy outlines but man-shaped smokeless fire.

Meanwhile Zulfikar, the Emir, has to deal with defending the city from surprise attacks by Shayateen and Ghul djinn while the well-meaning maharaja Aarush, the oldest surviving son of the previous maharaja, runs the city peaceably though he is starting to run up against rich landowners who live away from Noor agitating for the treaty with the ifrit to be nullified and the ifrit to be removed from the city.

I enjoyed this story although it got off to a bit of a slow start. Even though I live in Asia I found the welter of unfamiliar words (from Arabic, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu etc) a bit hard to wade through. There is a glossary at the back but it's a bit awkward to use with an e-book; with a physical book, it would be easier to flip between pages to look up words. Don't get me wrong, though; I did appreciate the way Azad has blended cultures and easy acceptance of other races and religions in this fictional Silk Road city. In fact, although it is not specifically stated, it looks as though Fatima's adoptive family was Hindu (Sunaina, at least, seems to be) but raised her as a Muslim. And there is lots of food and colourful clothing.

I found that, because it is written in the present tense, I had to make a bit of a mental adjustment coming back to the book after break. I also felt that, somehow, this served to keep the characters at a distance as we watched what happens to them rather than feeling it, if it had been reported in the past tense and, consequently, I didn't feel fully invested in them.

One of the strengths of this story is the women in it. The women from the poorer part of the city have had their mettle tested and are strong because they have to be. The elder royal ladies are strong because they are in positions of power, both as the ruling family and as elders within their family. The younger ones come into their own in the course of the story and learn to stand up for what is right despite what others may think. (However, I felt that that the rajkumari's change of character, while plausible, could have been made more convincing.) Some characters realise that getting married because they are expected to is not an answer for them while others realise that marriage can work for them even though they hadn't been looking for someone else to share their lives. There is a romance, which is fairly sweet and innocent, and possibly a commentary on arranged marriages that they can work under the right circumstances.

Unlike the culture of the humans in the story, which is male-dominated, we are told that ifrits are a matriarchal society. However, there are few ifrit women on earth because they are too important to their culture and families to cross over (and so, unfortunately, we don't get to see it).

I liked the Alif sisters (so called because all their names start with A) and their relationship with each other; I would have liked to have seen more of that between Fatima Ghazala and Sunaina because they are, or were, obviously close (when they weren't squabbling).

“Let me hear the tune first,” she says clearly.
There is a pause, and then from the other side of the purdah comes the sound of the oud. The three witnesses from the men’s side try to maintain straight faces, but the Alif sisters do not even bother. Azizah is snickering while Adila has buried her face in her hands, though her shaking shoulders give away her mirth. Amirah has stuck her fingers into her ears. The Emir’s oud playing is that atrocious. Fatima Ghazala, however, looks delighted.
Thankfully, the piece the Emir is butchering is a short one and over fairly quickly.

Fortunately for me, the cast list is restrained so I can keep track of everyone; however, this does lead to coincidences, for example, Sunaina happens to make cosmetics for her employer one day which come to the attention of the rajkumari when she (unusually) attends a party and this ends up involving Sunaina in Aftab (palace) life. But that's just something that snagged my attention in passing and doesn't detract from the story.

I recently read City of Brass which has a similar premise and is also populated the djinn-like beings and I found [The Candle and the Flame] less confusing. The world-building in this book could certainly stand a sequel or at least another story set in this world and I would love to read it.

{* Just as an aside: there is no such thing as too many books. I suspect many LibraryThingers will agree with me.}

June 2021
4 stars ( )
  humouress | Jun 29, 2021 |
Literary Merit: Great
Characterization: Great
Recommended: yes
Level: High School or above

The main character Fatima is a guarded individual that has learned to navigate the
city of Noor in every sense of the word.
The city of Noor lives in fear of the chaotic tribe of Shayateen. The Shayateen slaughtered Noor’s entire population. Fatima and two other humans were the only survivors of one of their attacks. The maharajah protect Noor. The maharajah’s commander is Zulfikar. Zulfikar and Fatima end up having quite the romance and the world building is incredible!

This book is a must read for YAs that love romance and fantasy. ( )
  SWONroyal | Jan 13, 2020 |
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Fatima lives in the city of Noor, on the Silk Road, which is currently protected by the Ifrit, djinn of order and reason, from attacks by the violent and ruthless Shayateen djinn--but Fatima was infused with the fire of the Ifrit who died saving her when she was four years old, and when one of the most important Ifrit dies she finds herself drawn into the intrigues of the court, the affairs of the djinn, and the very real dangers of a magical battlefield.

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