People lived because she killed. People died because he lived.
To those following my Twitter, these words should be all too familiar. From the moment I discovered Hafsah Faizal’s upcoming (now published) debut, We Hunt the Flame, I was captivated. A rich, Arabian-inspired fantasy world, written by a Muslim woman? It’s everything I love about diverse books and YA, and I had to get my hands on it. I’m not much of a book reviewer, as most of my critical skills fall to the wayside as the excitement of “PLEASE read this” overcomes me, so this will likely not compare to more experienced bloggers’ words.
All the same, I have to say something beyond “PLEASE read this”. The book deserves it.
WHtF has two narrators. The first is Zafira, the Hunter, who disguises herself as a man to feed her people. She risks everything by obtaining meat from the cursed forest of the Arz. The second is Nasir, the Prince of Death, an assassin trapped by his father—the Sultan’s—desires. Both are sharp, quick-witted, and have so many layers to them that the novel digs into with each passing page. Zafira fears she cares too much; that selfishness will be her downfall. Nasir fears his own emotions, afraid (and unwilling) to let himself express anything. The first part of the book they don’t interact, each on their own path towards the plot, but you can still see how distinct and special these characters are, and the excitement only builds for their interactions until they finally meet.
Their romance I won’t spoil much of, but it’s electric, tense, and so worth it. The way Zafira and Nasir clash, then come apart…I could read it for ages. And the sheer respect Nasir has for her is a welcome break from much of het romance I’ve read across YA. Don’t dismiss this book because of the romance—you’ll be doing yourself a disservice for what should be the benchmark of good YA romance.
The world is so lush and beautiful that I instantly found myself there. I love any book with a good map that really uses the setting. I delighted in flipping to view the locations all the characters start from and move to, tracking their progress, and exploring the world through references the characters make. It feels large and expansive as any good fantasy should, with a diversity of culture and minute, sub-state differences that add to the feeling it’s a real place out there, somewhere. Food is used copiously and excellently as a source of worldbuilding, showing the interactions between characters, their differences, and their opinions. It’s so lavishly described that a few times I had to pause and go eat something to sate my hunger!
The prose—the prose I could praise forever. There’s a fine line between over the top metaphor and pure illustrative words, and Faizal never once crosses it. Her words and imagery, her choice of spacing on the page, her chapter placement, they all add to the story she’s telling, never once taking away from it. It feels different, magical, and above all, it’s attention grabbing. I could hardly look away as I read, my eyes yearning for the next poetic line, the next shock of powerful words to drive the story forwards. Faizal has a clear, original voice, and it’s one I cannot wait to see again in any future works.
The pacing is the only part I did not fully enjoy. Nothing major, and certainly nothing that ruined my enjoyment, just a sense that some scenes happened a bit too fast, and some happened a little too slowly. The beginning of the novel has a lot to establish, and as an avid fantasy fan, I didn’t mind the longer wait before the plot really got going—but the wait was still there. A few places I felt could have been made shorter, or done together, to get to the real crux of the story sooner. The climax, while full of brilliantly set-up reveals that had me shocked and surprised, might have used a little more breathing space to allow those realities to sink in.
Overall, it’s a welcome break from European-based fantasies (and I say that as someone writing one!) and a stunning debut. You can feel Faizal’s passion and care for all her characters, and the sheer work she puts into each word. I cannot wait for a sequel to see what comes next for Zafira, Nasir, and their friends… and I hope you look forward to it with me.