Friday, January 7, 2022

We Hunt the Flame (Sands of Ariwaya, #1) - Hafsah Faizal

Summary:  People lived because she killed.   People died because he lived.

Zafira is the Hunter, disguising herself as a man when she braves the cursed forest of the Arz to feed her people.  Nasir is the Prince of Death, assassinating those foolish enough to defy his autocratic father, the sultan.  If Zafira is exposed as a girl, all of her achievements will be rejected; if Nasir displays his compassion, his father will punish him in the most brutal of ways.  Both Zafira and Nasir are legends in the kingdom of Arawiya -- but neither wants to be.

War is brewing, and the Arz sweeps closer with each passing day, engulfing the land in shadow.  While Zafira embarks on a quest to uncover a lost artifact that can restore magic to her suffering world and stop the Arz, Nasir is sent by the sultan on a similar mission: retrieve the artifact and kill the Hunter.  But an ancient evil stirs as their journey unfolds -- and the prize they seek may pose a threat greater than either can imagine.  

Set in a richly detailed world inspired by ancient Arabia, We Hunt the Flame is a gripping debut of discovery, conquering fear, and taking identity into your own hands.  

(Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com) 

My Review:  I started We Hunt the Flames as an audiobook but quickly transitioned to a hard copy when I realized this was a book I would need to read myself.  There wasn't anything wrong with the narrator per se, I just liked the world the author was building too much to not want to hold it in my hands.  

The first thing I noticed when I opened the print copy was the compelling dedication: To my mother, for shaping my heart, and my father, for hardening it to steel.  I don't know why, but it gave me chills (the good kind).  The next thing that caught my attention was the gorgeous map of Ariwaya, the fictional land in which the book is set, and its many caliphates (think states or districts). Some people dislike maps in books, but I love them. I'm a very visual person and I like to be able to 'see' the world the author is building and a well-rendered map really helps me keep things straight in my head.   It is on the lengthier end of the reading spectrum (469 pages) with a high chapter count (91 chapters + epilogue), though most chapters are only a few pages.  The perspective shifts between the two main characters with each perspective forming a new chapter.  

Zafira was raised in caliphate that severely restricts the lives of women.  Disguised in her late father's cloak, she is known only as the Hunter who provides for her small village.  If she is discovered, she'll be severely punished and stripped of her freedom.  Nasir is the Crown Prince, raised in a life of privilege and impossible standards.  As the sultan's personal hashashin, he kills without mercy or remorse.  After a strange encounter in a cursed forest, Zafira is invited on a mysterious quest that could be the key to restoring a long lost magic.  Nasir is given a rather different objective -- find the Hunter, steal the object of the quest, and kill anyone who gets in the way.  Neither huntress nor assassin travel alone and when their paths collide tempers flare, sparks fly, and an evil long thought dead lurks in the darkness.

We Hunt the Flame has a rich atmosphere, a fun romance, and mesmerizing prose.  It was not uncommon for me to re-read sections just so I could revel in the feel of a well-turned phrase.  I loved the incorporation of quasi-Arabian culture, dress, food, and folklore as well as the more unique aspects of the story regarding character's affinities (special magical abilities) and the history of Ariwaya.  I really enjoyed the romantic aspects of the story.  It's a fairly standard 'enemies to lovers' (well, not quite lovers) that I wish I didn't love as much as I do, but...well, here we are.  Nasir and Zafira have an almost tangible chemistry and their romance is a slow-burn that eventually leads to some swoon-worthy (not too spicy) moments.  In a lot of ways it was very Darcy and Elizabeth, but with sorcery, demons, and murder.  

I flat out adored the not-so-subtle subtle themes of gender equality that threaded their way through the story, especially those regarding female empowerment but also male vulnerability. Initially, Nasir's character is all death, destruction, and hard edges, belying the the complex and carefully-concealed emotions that boil beneath the surface.  As the story goes on, he is still all those things, but more willing to let himself be seen.  Zafira is a fantastically strong character with these fierce moments of defiance, where she refuses to submit to the caliph's vision of who or what she should be and I loved watching her fully embrace her own identity as the story unfolds.  One of my favorite lines in the book speaks volumes about her strength of spirit: If you want me obedient, Prince, kill me and carry my corpse. Even now, it makes me laugh. 

My only major criticism of the story is the pacing.  It took a good long while (i.e. 130ish pages) for things to start moving -- 130 pages, give or take -- and the two main characters don't even meet until around the 200th page.   It was hard to wait for Zafira and Nasir to meet.  Instead, the author uses the pages to lay the foundation of  both characters personalities, personal relationships, and histories, so it is not like they weren't important for the story, they just weren't as exciting as later chapters.  Then, towards the end, the story explodes with surprising magic and intense action 'sequences.'  Initially I was confused about what was happening and I had to go back and reread a few things to make sense of it.  I'm glad I hung on, despite the inconsistencies in pace, because I believe that it will all seem more measured when I look back on the story as part of a duology.

We Hunt the Flame is the first book in the Sands of Ariwaya duology.  I stayed up till 3:30am in the morning trying desperately to finish it, but ultimately had to force myself to go to bed without about 80 pages left because I had to adult in the morning and, apparently, I'm a lightweight now.  I finished it the next day and all I'll say is that I'm glad there is another book as this one ends with plenty of unanswered questions.  Thankfully, I should be able to get my hands on the next one after the holidays. I'll let you know how we get on.  

UPDATE:  In between writing this review and it's publication I entered a year-long book buying/borrowing ban in an effort to read the towers of books that currently reside in my own home.    It's going to be a while before I get to the sequel.  You might want to forge ahead on your own.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some innuendo, intense kissing, and situations I would consider steamy or sensual than sexual.  Light PG-13 at the most.  Some violence, non-graphic.  Some made-up profanity (e.g. daama or kharra) but no actual profanity.

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