There’s nothing better than a swashbuckling tale that takes place on the high seas. The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty is one of those tales, and one well worth reading if this type of story is your cup of tea. It’s also worth reading if you’ve been underwhelmed by pirate yarns of publishing yore—Chakraborty’s book takes place in a magically infused version of the 12th century on the Indian Ocean, for one, which is not a common location for well-known pirate stories we’ve seen from, let’s say, Walt Disney Studios. The book’s protagonist, Amina, is also not your usual nakhudha (captain). She is a middle-aged woman who is formidable and courageous and, frankly, a little worse for wear at this point in her career.
At the beginning of the novel, Amina is retired and living a quiet life with her mother and daughter. She misses the sea, but she left her beloved ship, the Marawati, after her demonic husband (at the time—Amina has taken on multiple husbands in her life, with some marriages only lasting a night or two) destroyed her crewmate’s soul after an ill-fated deal. The trauma of this unnatural death scarred Amina and the rest of her surviving crew, and they all disbanded after locking her chaos-seeking lover in a trunk and leaving him for dead. For the past 10 years, Amina has lived on land and in anonymity.
Amina’s legend as a powerful nakhudha lives on, however, and her cover as a beleaguered tour guide gets blown after she saves two of her customers from certain supernatural death. The story reaches the wealthy mother of her dead crewmate. That woman hunts Amina down and convinces the former nakhudha to rescue her granddaughter who has purportedly run off with a magic-meddling Frank, a man from what is now called Italy. The promise of generous payment initially spurs Amina, bum knee and all, to get her crew and her ship back—although not without adventurous mishaps that, once they are in pursuit of the Frank, become leviathan-level large (literally) and life-threatening to hundreds, if not thousands.
The tale, which Amina is telling to a scribe in the first person, delivers what an adventure story should be: It’s got monsters and magical objects, those in need of rescue, and those with multiplicitous motivations. Chakraborty was inspired by the travelogues and wonder literature of the medieval Islamic world, and the motifs and the magic clearly reflect that. Throughout the book, for example, there are interludes where Amina, via the scribe she is telling her story to, tells long-told tales about a being who becomes trapped in a basin that becomes imbued with unspeakable powers (spoiler warning: that object is something the Frank wants for nefarious purposes, and something Amina must prevent him from getting in order to prevent the death of thousands).
The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi, however, is also a story about a middle-aged mother who above all else wants to protect her child.
“People have this idea of mothers, that we are soft and gentle and sweet,” Amina says early on in the book when the wealthy grandmother subtly threatens her child. “As though the moment my daughter was laid on my breast, the phrase I would do anything did not take on a depth I could have never understood before. This woman thought to come into my home and threaten my family in front of my child?
She must not have heard the right stories about Amina al-Sirafi.”
As a parent of a certain age, I connected with this about Amina—the fiercely burning love for your children, the challenge of work-life balance (a pirate ship isn’t an ideal place for a 10-year-old, although Amina of course misses her daughter even while she enjoys being back on the Marawati in a career that she loves), as well as the recognition that your physical capabilities, like that bum knee, aren’t what they used to be. Amina is older, but she can still fight and is still full of spirit and determination. I hope we’ll see more characters like her in genre fiction in the years to come.
Like many pirate tales, The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi also gets dark, with vivid violence and gruesome deaths. The novel, however, is punctuated with lighter moments, including some quite humorous ones, especially when Amina’s demon-like husband shows up once again. His self-centeredness makes for some comical scenes, even when they are surrounded by devastation, potential tragedy, or other apparently hopeless circumstances.
The crew is also a delight: there’s Dalila with her many poisonous potions and steely resolve; Tinbu with his big heart and unwavering loyalty; and Majed, whose grumpy demeanor clears up when faced with a challenge for his fastidious navigation skills. Everyone on the crew also comes from different places and has different interests, histories, and orientations, which all add depth and emotion to the events they find themselves in.
And of course, last and certainly not least, there’s the Marawati’s poor excuse for a cat, a straggly stray that can’t help but steal your heart with every mewl it makes.
And while things get very magically wacky in the later part of the book (maybe a little too wacky, though your mileage may vary), the relationships between Amina and her crew as well as her love for her daughter keep the story from capsizing (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). The ending of the book also sets up the opportunity for further adventures with Amina al-Sirafi and her crew. I, for one, eagerly look forward to the next installment in what will hopefully become a series of multiple adventures.
The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi is published by Harper Voyager
Read an excerpt here!
Vanessa Armstrong is a writer with bylines at The LA Times, SYFY WIRE, StarTrek.com and other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog Penny and her husband Jon, and she loves books more than most things. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @vfarmstrong.