A fantastical silk road city comes to life in Nafiza Azad's richly detailed debut novel, The Candle and the Flame.
Fatima works as a messenger in the melting pot of Noor, a bustling desert city where humans and djinn live side by side. Once Noor was only a human city, but an attack by a chaotic tribe of djinn called the Shayateen wiped out the entire population — all except for Fatima and her adoptive sister and grandmother. After the massacre, a new maharajah took charge of Noor and turned to the Ifrit, powerful djinn who strive to keep order in the world, to help drive out the Shayateen and keep the city safe, for its new human and Ifrit inhabitants alike.
Noor has been mostly peaceful in the years since the massacre. But one day, Fatima delivers a message to the most powerful Ifrit in the city, the Name Giver, who has always treated her kindly, teaching her as if she was his own daughter. The message contaminates him with an evil taint, and he's forced to self-immolate to protect the city. In doing so, he passes his power on to Fatima — power which should only belong to a djinn.
That Ifrit fire awakens something in Fatima's blood, making her more than human and capable of divining the true names of djinn in order to manifest them in the human world, or cast them back into their own realm. In addition to the mystery of who contaminated the Name Giver and what it means for the rulers of Noor, there's the question of who Fatima truly is and why she is able to exist in a strange new state — not djinn, but no longer fully human.
The plot of The Candle and the Flame revolves around a few key questions. Why is Fatima special and what does it mean for her life? Who is responsible for the Name Giver's death and why? What will the future of Noor be when many of its citizens chafe against the presence of the Ifrit who protect them? All of these issues are present from pretty much the start of the book, and it feels like we circle around them again and again, much like riding the whirlwinds the Ifrit can use to travel quickly through the desert. I don't mean to imply that the book is dull, as there's always a lot going on, but it does sometimes feel a bit lacking in forward momentum. In particular, the first half takes a while to find its way, with the second picking up speed.
I'd say it's well worth riding out the eddies, because, as with many debut fantasy novels, it's clear how much thought and care went into the creation of Noor and its mythology. Details of smells and sounds create a sensory aspect to the city that balances all the madcap flurry of magics and names. Did I mention there are a lot of names? Everyone seems to have at least two proper names as well as a formal title and probably a nickname. It's a lot to keep track of, especially in the parts of the book that focus on the royal court, but I land on the side of liking it, because it amplifies the fact that Fatima's magic is the power of naming. Names and language mean everything in Noor, a city of many cultures and identities, so it seems fitting that names are a fluid and essential aspect of the story.
Azad's use of language also gives a greater depth to the worldbuilding. Words in Urdu, Arabic, and Hindi are scattered through the text with a deft and casual hand that makes them blend in seamlessly, and the writing itself has a flow and nuance that's quite different from a standard young adult fantasy voice. In a year with a glut of books coming out with fire and flames in their titles, this attention to detail and dedication to language set The Candle and the Flame apart.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.