The Candle and the Flame is the first book I picked for the Appendix: Lit Book Club. Written by Nafiza Azad, this young adult book sets the bar high for the rest of the books and does exactly what I was hoping it would. Azad, a self-identified island girl born in Fiji and now living in Canada, gave my imagination a fresh take on heroes and fantasy.
The Candle and the Flame is about a young woman learning who she is in the city of Noor. Humans and Djinn cohabitate this peaceful city filled with trade, food, and colour, despite its tragic past—though something nefarious simmers under the surface. The reluctant heroine is thrust onto a path that forces her to become greater than she ever considered. The characters are strong, dynamic, and unapologetic women that challenge the classic male gaze, and dominance, in fantasy. The language used encourages diversity through the story and the writing. This book brings a thriving multilingual, multifaith, fantasy world to life so vividly that it made me yearn for more.
“The muezzin’s call pierces the thinning night air.” The first sentence of the book had me tempted to reach for a thesaurus. I didn’t. I had made a personal promise that I would hold off as long as I could. Part of good writing is context. It didn’t take long till I was rewarded with “…call to prayer…” what the muezzin’s call sounded like in the thinning night air instantly jumped to my foremind. On nearly every page the culture of the city of Noor and its varied population is laid out in food, colours, and sounds. The descriptions are refreshing. They explain just what you need without going into detail about the preciseness of what everything is. While this encouraged visuals for the story, it was a struggle early on.
A few nights and chapters in I placed the book down in frustration and went to make some tea. Emir, maharajah, rajmata, sayyida—and the many different terms that were used throughout the book—all felt jolting. Because of my nerd background, I knew that Emir and maharajah were ruler titles. The others I had to continually think and reread for contextual descriptions. While my tea water began to boil, I began wondering why didn’t the book didn’t just use Lord, King, queen mother, or ma’am [as in Sir]. The kettle clicked off and so did my answer. Why should it? I began steeping my tea as did the realisation that: what I was thinking was exactly why I started this club in the first place. Emir and lord might be similar, they are not the same. Nor is Maharaja and King. I wanted a book out of eurocentric norms and here I was arguing it. By the time I sat back down, tea in hand, I had a new perspective on the book, the author, and the story being told. English terms may have made it easier to understand in the short term though it would have lost all the culture, meaning, and beauty of the actual story.
The book elegantly calls out the misogyny in the world. Rather than only women calling out men, men call out other men on their misogyny. Some of the men are strong and hold to their integrity, others not so much. There are also call outs on cultural attitudes—scenes where the women do things to blend into the background and not be noticed. The main character Fatima starts by wearing a turban when out in the streets to be ignored as a youthful boy as opposed to a young woman. As the novel continues the women become gloriously dynamic, powerful, and fierce. Rather than treating it like it is something one or two individuals can change all over the characters force the change where they can and acknowledge that it is bigger than them in many ways.
This novel uses language that encourages the reader’s immersion into the culture, sights, and sounds or the city of Noor. It does so unapologetically, as it should. It doesn’t baby the reader into the language it just presents it and does what any good writer would do—explains the term through context. Its strong empowered heroes are written so well that the misogyny they experience is a factor in their characters, yet does not define the whole character. This is a wonderful novel and a hopefully story. I’m very grateful to the author for sharing this world with us. By the end of this book, I had bought some baklava to drink with my tea and finished the last few chapters with music from the middle east playing on Spotify in the background. I was lost in Noor and ready for more.