I’m going to try and be fair here, because I’ve truly read worse in this genre and I really appreciated the crash course in jinni mythology embedded within the plot. Because what kind of reader raised by Disney would not be drawn to a story like this? And for a while this had the novelty of an under explored mythology going for it. The lush and decadent world building was like an exotic recipe of something familiar made entirely different by the culture, customs and history. But at it’s core this had an unnecessarily convoluted plot delivered by characters who were as interesting as the inside of my eyelids.
For those planning to read this one...
This was set in Baghdad when humans are engaged in a mythic war against the jinni. Najwa is part of the jinni elite spies and the only one able to infiltrate the anti-jinni wards in the caliph’s castle. Her story alternated with that of Zayele, a young girl who was meant to marry the caliph’s son, Prince Kamal. In what can only be described as the equivalent of a juvenile jinni hissy fit, Najwa manages to get herself trapped in the barge meant to bring Zayele to the palace. Seeing the jinni’s perfect resemblance to her, Zayele wishes for Najwa to take her place and send her back home to her family, only to be sent to the caverns among the jinni.
I really don’t know if I have anything else to add in the discussion about a pair of identical idiots switching places and love interests, because gifs and colourful language can only take me so far so permit me to be redundant and basically lazy in listing down my issue with this story.
This was told in alternating, first person POVs between Najwa and Zayele, which I suppose was necessary to show the progression of both sides of the story once the switch happened. Unfortunately there was very little contrast in the personalities between the two protagonists to make a striking enough impact to me. Which, given that they had to switch places down the line, has clusterfuck written all over it.
And clusterfucked it did.
There was very little background on each of the heroine for me to make any form of connection with either. For a while I liked Najwa’s half of the story slightly better than Zayele’s who came across a whiny, selfish girl who only wants to climb mountains and swim rivers. She doesn’t want to marry the prince, the palace is too far and it’s really hot in the city! She needs to get dressed to be presented to the vizier? But it’s rai-ning! This entire kerfuffle was basically her fault and once she and Najwa switched places she exerted very little effort to try and blend in among the jinni but eased so effortlessly into jinnihood - reading maps and shit - once she learned she was one. She was supposed to fear for her survival among these reputably savage beings but exerted very little effort to assimilate herself (if she exerted any at all is actually debatable) save perhaps for the taxing job of kissing Atish, Najwa’s maybe-admirer who likes to walk around shirtless.
Meanwhile in the palace, Najwa seems to be well on her way to becoming the worst undercover jinni spy in the history of undercover jinni spies. She possesses this tattoo that enables her to transmit images to the Jinni Spy Headquarters much like a spy camera, but does she use it to alert her colleagues the moment she realizes the advantage her predicament has put her in? Well, she was busy getting distracted by the cinnamon-scented prince and proceeds to use her abilities to stalk him that one has to wonder if it's the latent fat kid in her longing for a Cinnabon.
But more than the insta-love between the cardboard personalities of its protagonists was this book’s remarkable commitment to making each of the characters sound like idiots with the collective IQ of a rock. Why was it a great surprise for Najwa and Zayele that they are sisters? Okay maybe that's not too hard to believe but why did their similarities not strike their curiosities first and foremost? (in the end it was stated that Najwa had barely glanced at Zayele but seeing as everyone easily took her as Zayele I’m disappointed it didn’t raise any alarms from her dismal spy-sense) Something about the kind of questions raised through its dialogue or the reactionary behaviour of its characters in certain scenes just made them seem immutably stupid from where I stand. I suppose these were supposed to seamlessly fit and help in the unfurling of the plot but only felt discordant and forced. And I get the feeling it all trickles back down to the first person narrative.
His face was carved in a permanent scowl, and his belt held two daggers. He was broader than Atish and had a long scar that stretched over his right shoulder, over the lion mark of the Shaitan. He was holding a map clamped on a piece of slater, and I noticed that his knuckles were white with scars. From training or from fighting humans?
I belatedly realised this was intended to be the first book in a series, thus explaining that non-ending of sorts. But I really can’t bring myself to give this more than what I’ve decided seeing as it hardly encourages me to pick up the next book. There was no build-up towards what this revealed about the jinni wars, leaving the twists in the plot feeling contrived. The failure to elicit any sympathy towards certain characters only highlighted the story’s weaknesses than generate any interest on my part.
So I apologise for not bringing anything new to the discussion. I really wanted to offer some hope and positive insight for those who hope to those who plan to read this but I just can’t find a flattering angle to what this offered.
Review Copy courtesy of the publishers.