A Glorious Romp in Ye Olde Arabian Seas
‘The Adventures Of Amina Al-Sirafi’ by Shannon Chakraborty
Shannon Chakraborty is famous for writing the sweeping Islam-infused science fantasy epic, The Daevabad Trilogy. However, her new book The Adventures Of Amina Al-Sirafi is speculative fiction rather than science fiction, exploring the Indian Ocean in the first millennium rather than exploring space in the third. She barely misses a beat, though, with a fantastically fun modern revisiting of the medieval explorers tales, in a novel for which they could have coined the word “swashbuckling.”
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A few years after and a few miles south of the Crusades, circumstances force legendary pirate Amina Al-Sirafi out of retirement to find the grandchild of a rich old lady. Although she has both carrot and stick to spur her into action, Al-Sirafi doesn’t actually mind too much because she’s been living in isolated penury with her daughter, hiding from a lifetime of enemies. Plus, quite apart from her tumbledown circumstances, Al-Sirafi misses her life at sea.
Al-Sirafi reunites her old crew, gathering them one by one from their new, settled lives as business owners and family folk. Their personalities are charming – even when crusty and deadly – and all their varied skills come in handy for surviving magic caves, sea monsters, lustful moon gods, supernaturally enhanced crusader warriors and a number of mundane sailors, soldiers and politicians. It comes as no surprise when Al-Sirafi herself, as a stand-in for Chakraborty, notes her indebtedness to Sindbad (sic).
The Arabian Sea at the turn of the second millennium was by some measures a cosmopolitan, world albeit one where the gender and religion politics worked quite differently from our contemporary western world. Neither I nor any casual reader could know enough about the history of that period to know how live-and-let-live it actually was, but stylistically, the novel is sometimes a bit too eager to note – even in its deeply Islamic context – its insistent inclusion of Jews, Christians and pagans, gay men and people struggling with gender identities.
In short, The Adventures Of Amina Al-Sirafi is a picaresque novel high on excitement that introduces a whole cast of characters while barely scratching the surface of the rich watery world between the horn of Africa and the south coast of the Arabian peninsula. As well as Sinbad, Chakraborty happily borrows from the Arabian tales of One Thousand and One Nights and, like that project, there’s a sense that she has many more tales to tell.
At one point Al-Sirafi washes up on a magic island overseen by bird-like creatures who, in aggregate, seem both omnipotent and autocratic. Helped by a dissident bird-like creature, Al-Sirafi escapes with her life (her capital crime – being on their island) only by agreeing to spend her life helping the creatures recover magic artifacts. We do not know how she will reconcile her buccaneering pirate ways with her parenting but it seems pretty clear that we will find out.