We Hunt the Flame (Book Review/Rant)

Book: We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

Series: Sands of Arawiya, No. 1

Genre: YA (Arabian-inspired) Fantasy/Romance

Content for the Sensitive Reader: Cold-blooded murder, violence in relationships, torture, war, genocide, battle sequences, seduction (via backstory), sexism, passionate kissing and contact, plenty of innuendo, mild language in various tongues, implied mind control. Frankly, I didn’t bother keeping track of the body count. About average for YA war fantasy. Not recommended for readers substantially younger.

BookmarkedOne Rating: 5/10

Spoilers clearly marked: read at your own risk.

It sounds fabulous. Almost everyone who reads the book loves it. It’s won awards. It starts with opposites, darkness and light. The classic struggle of eternity. It’s narrated by two different characters. It’s a fantasy inspired by ancient Arabia. Yes to all the things, right?

I didn’t fall in love. For a second there at the beginning, I thought I was going to. The epigraph reminded me of the opening verses of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Lofty and beautiful, full of promise. Maybe this would be a high fantasy set against burning sands, something to sweep me away like a wild race on horseback. Something to gush over. I confess my heart might have actually skipped a beat faster.

But it wasn’t what I was hoping for.

Instead, I got a 472-page reminder as to why I don’t read YA. And really, that means it’s my fault, not enjoying this book. Plenty of other people love the genre. I almost never read it. There’s just so much–bah, I don’t even know. Overflowing emotion? Hormones? Lack of confidence or identity? It’s…mawkish. And not just this book. King of Scars was the same way. So much crying.

I’m getting ahead of myself. But it’s important for you to know my YA prejudice before we get going. I’m trying not to be unfair.

And I also may have made another mistake that marred by reaction to the book. I decided in my busy schedule to listen to the audiobook version, something I usually avoid (why give up the rustle of pages? Characters whispering straight into your ear?). And that meant I couldn’t help feeling annoyed almost from the start.

Because I’m a snob.

No, really. I’ve tried to figure out what it is that bothered me about it. Fiona Hardingham has a lovely voice. But I can’t help listening to it and thinking how it could have sounded differently. The delivery of the lines. The phrasing. The differences in how I imagine the character’s voices. Hardingham’s voice is soft and sounds almost weighted with grief from the beginning–appropriate, perhaps, but it doesn’t give her much room to show a change as things get worse. And Zafira is the Hunter. I kept imagining her to have a little more backbone. Be gutsy, you know? Not sound like a loud yell would blow her over. Especially when she’s trying to pitch her voice lower, to sound like a man. And perhaps it’s because the two narrators are trying to make their character voices sound alike, but the male characters often sound bored. Annoying. Even irritated. There isn’t a depth of emotion there. It sounds like a reading, rather than a performance.

Like I said. I’m a total snob.

So! The book itself!

It has a slow start. As in waiting five chapters to get to the wedding mentioned in Chapter I…which has honestly nothing to do with the main plot. And we have to sit through a history lesson, which is important. And then several pages of emotional overflowing as Zafira makes up her mind…and the horses get names and personalities? Was that necessary when they don’t appear in the rest of of the book?

By this point, I’m starting to feel like the whole book is exposition. When do we actually start this quest? When does stuff start to move? It’s fine. I can sit through a slow start. Colfer’s Airman was incredibly difficult to get into, but plenty worth the wait.

So I waited.

I waited for the trek across an ocean, and then across a desert. The story seemed to drag with the pace of their feet.

And then we get to Nasir. Confession: I was intrigued. Hoping for a character like Royce Melborn from The Crown Tower. He’s narrating half the book, so it’s pretty clear there’s more to the character than an assassin.

That is what I read for. I read for characters caught in conflict. Jagged edges. Redemption. Someone with a personality buried under layers and layers of complexity and pain. Half words and broken sentences that speak volumes if you know how to read them. Someone as sharp as steel and fragile as shattered glass. Humanity.

And murder paired with a dash of parkour. I won’t lie.

That’s not what I got.

Oh, it seemed like it was going to be. The first chapter with him was intriguing. He’s selfish. He’s cowardly. He’s skilled and deadly. From a writer’s perspective, yes, it is the perfect place to begin a redemption arc.

But.

Faizal says he doesn’t see the point in talking. Makes sense, right? What doesn’t make sense is that within pages of that statement, he’s all but screaming his tragic emotions into someone’s face.

No. No, no, no, no, no. If he were really that emotionally scarred, then you have the reason for the POV focused through him–you would never hear his secrets spoken aloud. Ever. Certainly not to someone he dislikes, who he knows intentionally annoys him. Not to people he spends what, two weeks with on a quest. No.

Long story short, if you promise me an emotionally dead character, I want him emotionally dead. Yes. I am that cruel.

And that brings us to the romantic arc. Again, I was intrigued. Both main characters have established romantic interests early in the book. Both are very sweet people who seem to care for the main characters, could love and support them–indeed, they already have. Wow–could it be possible we have two healthy relationships? No conflict involved here?

(SPOILER ALERT)

Oh, of course not. This is a YA book. The two main characters must fall in love. How silly of me. They clearly must be destined for each other. Star-crossed lovers. So let’s kill off one romantic interest, have the other rumored to be a traitor and uncaring, and smash our two protagonists into each other’s faces within two weeks of romantic interest 1’s violent and traumatic death scene!

(muffled Bookmarked screaming into a nearby pillow)

Guys. You do know this is not a healthy relationship, right? That pity is not love? That even if you feel something for each other, that’s not enough to call love? Not to mention the fact that both clearly still have feelings for their previous interests and offer no explanation for falling in love so abruptly with this new person except for a “racing heart” and “heat of x character’s skin.”

Teenage enemies to lovers. How lovely.

I hate love triangles so much.

(END SPOILER)

Next up is political intrigue and writing style. It’s a bit description-heavy. And since we have multiple characters, apparently we need the plot spelled out in detail to each one, while carefully leaving all the things the reader doesn’t know until the very end.

The effect of that isn’t great. Multiple times, I found myself going, “Wow, you guys are dumb” because I could spot plot points miles away while they were looking dewy-eyed into each other’s personal space. There’s such a thing as too much psychic closeness to your characters. We really don’t need to know every thought flying through their heads. Particularly if we’ve heard it before. Writing tip: don’t annoy your reader by purposefully obscuring important information and repeating emotional deliberation.

Probably this obscurity is because of the political intrigue. You’re never supposed to know all the inner workings. But I just felt disoriented–

  • Why did all these people arrive at an unreachable place and expect to team up like the Avengers on a magical treasure hunt? Yes, let’s postpone killing each other in favor of toasting marshmallows and giggling while braiding each other’s hair! Wait, what?
  • Oh. X and Y are related now. Yeah. Figures.
  • Oh again. You’re related to them, too. Are we trying to pull the relationship plot of Star Wars now?
  • (raises hand like a schoolgirl) Sorry, it’s just I’ve lost track amidst all the dark fog and palm trees and magical backstory. Why are we doing this again? What’s the point? If we’ve all double-crossed each other, why are you still hanging out? They just seemed like angsty teenagers stuffed into a camping trip. They’d threaten murder after that many hours together, but…
  • Wow. That’s a lot of tropes. Like, seriously. We’re going to pull the “I-fell-on-top-of-crush” trope twice? And the “girl-must-gently-clean-big-guy-crush’s-injuries?” “Strong-willed-girl-must-be-carried-out-of-danger” twice too? And does the author have to keep mentioning all these “Men Who Mysteriously Lost Their Shirts?” We get it. Girl thinks the guys are hot. Move on already (By this point, I’m imitating the little boy from The Princess Bride going “Is this a kissing book?” I came for murder. Where is murder? I was promised monsters)
  • Oh. And we conveniently avoid a high body count by cleverly making the enemy “creatures” or animals or things, rather than humans. I don’t even know how many times I’ve seen this trope now. For being a book with the main character as “The Prince of Death,” there’s remarkably little actual murder. Still. I like the shape-shifters too.
  • And guess what? It’s not an ending! It’s a lull in action so we can drag the book to a close. Tune in next time! My No. 2 least favorite book feature!

You know, this is turning into such a long rant, maybe I shouldn’t publish this post. Maybe I should just pretend it didn’t happen. But if I don’t voice dissenting opinions…can you trust me when I only list good ones? I have no answer to this question. But to be fair–

There are good things about the book!

Love belongs to everyone, even people who seem beyond it. It’s a gorgeous message, even if I have to wage my way through love triangles to get to it. Every time we neared it, something in me leaned forward a little bit, breath bated, hoping it would be the sort of heart-crushing redemption arc that makes you rethink everyone you interact with. Even killers have souls. “Murderer” or “thief” or even “vaguely annoying flirt” is not a species. Underneath, we’re all people. We all have souls. We all need love, no matter what we’ve done.

If only that had been the whole book, right?

There are satisfying moments. I mean, this is far more palatable than Violins of Autumn. Or Crown of Three.

Some of the descriptions are actually lovely. The careful depiction of assassin’s gear adding a layer to the character like an actor’s costume. The unfamiliar, sweet taste of the ice cream. Maybe they’re not vital, but they’re far superior to stories where I can’t even tell you what the characters look like.

It has more emotional power than the entirety of Frank Herbert’s Dune. But maybe that’s why it disappointed me so. I could see what it could be, how close it could have come to magnificence. It’s the editor side of me, I guess. I want something good to be better. Something better to stir change in the whole world.

YA doesn’t do that. Not for me.

So Hafsah Faizal, in the off chance you’re out there listening, please don’t be offended. I am a curmudgeonly little bookwyrm who can’t appreciate YA (or much else) because I’ve trained myself to weed out every unnecessary word, to ignore any story that isn’t going to redefine the world’s understanding of the SF/F genre. I even find fault with internationally acclaimed Writers of the Future winners. Regularly.

Write your stories. Make them stir your heart. That’s all anyone can ask of you. It’s all anyone should.

And I’ll do the same.


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