I’ve read so many outstanding debut novels this year, I didn’t think it was possible to pick my favourite from them. I’d been suffering from withdrawal after finishing S. A. Chakraborty’s The Kingdom of Copper. In keeping with the theme of stories from the East, I’d followed it up with a truly terrible East-meets-West book that simply made my withdrawal that much worse. And there it was. About a third of the way down my TBR pile. A book that I’d had for a few months but hadn’t gotten around to reading yet: Hafsah Faizal’s We Hunt the Flame. Unless another debut appears between now and the new year, Flame is definitely my favourite debut novel of 2019 (and the perfect antidote for Chakraborty withdrawal).
“If I told you my name, would you bow?” His voice was soft. A melancholy caress. He lifted his chin when understanding dawned on her face. “Or would you flee?”
Ninety years ago, the Sisters of old forged the kingdom of Arawiya and ruled justly. Now magic has been stripped and the five Caliphates each suffer a curse.
Strong-willed Zafira hails from Demenhur, cursed with snow. In a time where women are now forbidden to do anything considered ‘masculine’, including having a job, Zafira must disguise herself as a man as she hunts in the cursed forest, the Arz. She is the Hunter, an infamous enigma.
Nasir is from Sarasin, the Caliphate with the greatest army, where sands bleed black. He is the King’s son, the greatest of assassins, forced to kill anyone who opposes his father or defies his laws. Any sign of compassion from him, and innocents are punished in the most brutal of ways. He is the Prince of Death.
With the Arz growing in size and power, threatening to engulf everything in darkness, the two are sent on a quest: go to the Island of Sharr, retrieve a lost artefact and restore magic to a world suffering without it. Only Nasir has an added order: kill the Hunter.
Soon they realise an ancient evil is stirring on the island and the two, along with a small group of others, are forced to join together. Bonds form, tension rises, and not everyone can be trusted.
“I hope you can climb,” Nasir said.
“Do I look like a monkey?” Altair asked.
“That would be a disgrace to the monkey,” Nasir answered.
While the concept is good, We Hunt the Flame’s guiding light is definitely the characters. Zafira and Nasir quickly come to the realisation that they cannot survive Sharr alone, and the Zumra is born, with Altair, Kifah and Benyamin joining the team. Five extremely different personalities make for a brilliant narrative, with a whole heap of dry humour, one liners and passages that make you flinch or your stomach somersault. They’re complex, well-developed characters with backstories neatly woven into the narrative, and while these backstories are tragic in their own ways, no two characters deal with their past in the same way. Even the more secondary characters – Nasir’s father, and Zafira’s sister and best friend – are so intriguing that I look forward to seeing more of them in the next book.
If there was one character I had an issue with it was Deen, Zafira’s best friend’s brother, and possible love interest. The one scene where he truly seemed to be necessary was where he and Zafira go to get ice-cream. In contrast, my favourite character, the Sharr. The landscape is a character on its own: laughing, bleeding, teasing. Honestly, if there’s one reason to read this book, it’s for the way Faizal talks about the island.
People lived because she killed.
People died because he lived.
I’ve read a lot of reviews about how cliched and unsubtle the romance between Nasir and Zafira is but, at this point in the world of YA, is it not all predictable? Do we not know who’s going to end up with whom at the start of every book these days? Or, in the case of a book like this, from the very first time we read the synopsis? Putting aside it’s predictability, the only issue I had with the romance (and it was a fairly small one) was the repetitive nature of it, though I’m positive I’m guilty of the same in my writing! I was disappointed with the lack of balance between their points of view. Nasir’s chapters, for me, were far too few and far too short. Especially with moments like him and Altair going up against the dandan which, after his bloodthirsty reaction to seeing it in the previous chapter, definitely needed to be longer.
I’d also like to draw attention to Faizal’s translations. As someone who speaks/understands Hindi, Punjabi and a fair amount of Urdu as well as English, I always struggle with how much authors translate in their Eastern tales. For me, there’s a fine line between translating naturally and over translating (ie., spelling out the entire book for them). Faizal’s translation was a perfect balance for me. Subtle and natural. Just enough to tell you what you need to know without spoon-feeding you.
We Hunt the Flame is far from a perfect book, but it’s definitely my favourite debut of 2019. I cannot wait for the follow-up, We Free the Stars, due for release on May 12th 2020.