The elevator pitch for Shannon Chakraborty’s The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi is almost perfectly tailored to make me skip it. It’s an action-adventure tale on the high seas, with all manner of demons and demigods causing chaos at every turn. As a reader who doesn’t much care for action-heavy fantasy, nautical settings, or demigods, it seemed pretty open-and-shut. But I was intrigued by the deeply religious, middle-aged mother at the novel’s center, I got plenty of word-of-mouth recommendations from book friends, and it perfectly fit my last square in 2023 r/Fantasy Bingo, so I cautiously decided to give it a try. As it turns out, this book is great!
The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi is…well, an adventure of Amina al-Sirafi, a notorious 12th century pirate trying to live out retirement in a forgotten corner of Yemen with her mother and daughter. But when she’s approached by a wealthy and well-connected woman who won’t take no for an answer, she’s left with little choice but to come out of retirement to do one last job: retrieve the woman’s granddaughter, stolen by a dangerous Frankish explorer and mystic. As you can imagine, it doesn’t go smoothly–neither the rounding up of her old crew, nor the rescue itself, which sends her on the trail of a legendary artifact protected by perils beyond measure.
Right, so nautical action-adventure. As I said, not usually my thing. But a compelling narrative voice can refresh the most tired of tropes, and this one sucked me in from the start. Amina’s narration is sometimes beautiful, sometimes crude, and always riveting. And she makes for a fascinating central character, whose abiding care for her child and convictions as a devout Muslim give her ample reason to avoid falling back into the patterns of her old life, but whose sense of adventure pulls her to the sea and whose circumstances often don’t give her much in the way of choice.
While it takes a little while for the main plot to become clear, the story stays entertaining in true “Adventures of…” fashion. Amina may not know where her quest will end when she begins to round up old friends—who hilariously start complaining about side quests almost immediately—but there’s never a shortage of excitement, or of mortal peril. And when the main story does begin to sharpen, bringing in a legendary magical object that could confer terrifying power on its bearer and more than a couple supernatural beings interested in its finding—or its not being found—it expertly maintains the balance between action, character, and exposition. I find it frustrating when adventure fantasies turn into a string of action sequences loosely connected by exposition, but The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi never falls into that trap. An encounter with an old frenemy provides more than enough character conflict to add some emotional heft to the story, and the slow drips of information about the object of the quest are excellently interspersed, with periodic new variants of key legends building to an absolutely brilliant final iteration.
While the narrative voice and character work provide a strong backbone to the story, the action itself is well-worked, with supernatural beings sufficiently limited that encounters with them feels believable, and with the myriad secondary characters all bringing something to the table. Throw in a gorgeously-wrought and painstakingly researched setting and a refreshingly honest portrayal of the positive elements of both motherhood and religion, and you have a rollicking nautical adventure that feels surprisingly robust and well-rounded.
The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi definitely surprised me in a good way. The 12th century Arabian setting is wonderful, as is the protagonist trying to balance her circumstances and sense of adventure with her duties to her crew, her family, and her God. The narrative voice imbues the tale with life and wonder, with plenty of tension and plenty of fun. To top it all off, there’s both a satisfying ending and significant room for further stories. It’s truly excellent work.
Recommended if you like: action/adventure, pirates, Arab or Muslim-inspired fantasy, Strong Female Characters except with depth and material attachments.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Coastal Setting and Mythical Beasts and is also a Book Club book that’s Published in 2023 with a Middle Eastern Setting and Angels or Demons.
Overall rating: 18 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.