In French’s (Superheroes in Denim, 2016, etc.) fantasy novel, a young woman gains magical powers and sets out to avenge her slaughtered family.
For 18-year-old Fakhira at Aitrae Oasis in Ilauris, a fantasy world similar to ancient Arabia, the future looks simple: she’ll marry the man her father chose for her, a guardsman for Caliph Korval. But then her father’s rival Caliph Trimar’s forces attack the Oasis; Fakhira manages to hide, but her family is brutally murdered. On her way to sanctuary in Korval’s city, Kamrik, Fakhira falls through a crack in the ground into a pool of water. While she’s submerged, whispering voices address her as “Al-Kabar,” urge her to “Go forth and fight for freedom,” and give her a special sword. Using her new, magical powers, Fakhira plans to disguise herself as a man named Al-Kabar, join Korval’s army, and attack Trimar. She soon rescues a thin young man called Tahjis the Rat from thugs in Kamrik. He sees through Al-Kabar’s disguise but makes a deal to help her. Soon she gets close to Korval and gains his confidence, but she discovers that avenging her family is more complex than she thought, with innocent lives in the balance and more factions vying for power than she’d realized. But if she gets it right, Tahjis’ prediction may come true: that “The time of greedy, power-hungry men leading our people is over. The time of the Al-Kabar has come.” French offers an intriguingly layered world in this novel, taking what could be a simple revenge story and making it far more engaging by considering such things as unintended consequences and competing interests. Her worldbuilding is three-dimensional and subtly realized; for example, Fakhira’s culture, while clearly patriarchal, is also matrilocal. French’s voice is strong and vivid, never succumbing to the overwrought style that often plagues other fantasy books; the dialogue, too, is natural and unstilted. The unpredictable plot features some plans that work and others that fail, and it moves at a fast clip, nicely weaving in romantic elements between the battle scenes.
An absorbing fantasy novel that delivers many satisfactions.