Neither here nor there, but long ago…
Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land.
With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan’s oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie’s past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems.
As soon as I saw this book being talked about on Twitter, I was intrigued. And I fell in love with that gorgeous cover on first sight. So it was never in doubt that I would read this one and I was so happy when I got the arc. And since it’s been a while since I’ve read a fantasy novel, I decided to go with this one and then couldn’t even sleep without finishing it.
Indian mythological stories like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana may have had the most influence on me, but the stories from A Thousand and One Nights were also a part of my childhood in one form or the other and I was delighted that we were gonna get a fantasy novel inspired by these lovely stories. And wow the author delivers. The world she creates is vibrant and alive and so beautifully described, that I was left in awe. As the characters marveled at the new landscapes they encountered on their journey, I could feel their wonder, their perilous journey through the desert almost felt palpable because I could feel the heat and sand, and I could also cherish along with them when they found a small oasis in between. I think it’s also been a while since I read a fantasy which was mostly a journey and I was excited to be on this ride, though the author immerses the characters and us in numerous horrors and life threatening situations. The pacing is perfect, with the conflicts interspersed with small moments of joy or contemplation, but there’s also a thread of grief throughout because everyone has lost someone. It really kept me hooked from the first page and I didn’t wanna stop.
And themes the author weaves through the story are very subtle but can’t be missed. Through the centuries old conflict between humans and the jinn, the author weaves a narrative of power struggles, oppression, prejudice and mass murders. As oral storytelling is an important component of A Thousand and One Nights, the author uses that framework to give us small stories as interludes where we get to know tales of human heroes and dangerous jinns and the legendary wars between them. But then when we are confronted with fragments of actual memories from the jinn, the characters along with us are left to question who is in the right and who is in the wrong – is everything that we’ve been told as history true or is it just the narrative that is needed for those in power to grow more powerful. We get to experience how beautiful the oral storytelling tradition can be and how it connects people across divides and provides them respite from their daily struggles, but we also see how these same stories can be changed and exaggerated over the years to keep up a false narrative and encourage more oppression. It was very interesting to see the author navigate the issue from both sides and letting us decide for ourselves who the true culprits are.
As wonderful as the world building and story is, the characters equally complement them. Loulie or the Midnight Merchant or Layla is a mysterious figure in the Night Market who is famous for trading forbidden jinn relics. She is someone who has been shaped through the terrors she encountered in her childhood and now wants to be able to live her life on her own terms. She shows a very tough and fierce exterior but she is also a young woman who just doesn’t want to show vulnerability and thinks she has to stand alone if she wants to survive. Hers was an interesting character progression, where she goes from an independent person to someone who is forced to take up a quest along with reluctant partners and she learns many truths and lies along the way that cut deep into her heart, but she also learns that sometimes it’s ok to ask for help.
She is ably supported in all her adventures by her jinn bodyguard plus father figure Qadir. Theirs is a relationship built on adversity and grief and both of them are reluctant to bare their souls to each other, but there’s also a deep trust between them. While Loulie gives him a purpose in life when he is running away from his past, Qadir also gives her a life that serves as an escape from her grief and protects her in any way he can. Their relationship is tested throughout the book with secrets and reveals and it might feel like on the brink of shattering, but it’s really too strong and wonderfully written.
Mazen on the other hand is a prince, probably even a favorite of the sultan, but he is struggling to live in the confines of the gilded cage created by his father. He strives to be free and has a wanderlust to travel around the world, and is also a gifted storyteller who would love to carry forward his mother’s tradition. But he is also someone who is scared of confrontation, unwilling to question things even when he knows they are wrong, and is most comfortable when is not being himself – but we see him gradually learn to be brave in his own ways, realize more truths about the world he inhabits and decide whose side he ultimately wants to be on.
Aisha took me a while to connect with. She is also someone who suffered a major loss but that has made her into a singularly determined killer and thief. She trusts her leader and is unabashed about hating the jinns but as she is forced to go on the journey with the rest of the characters, she gets confronted with a lot of information that makes her question everything she knows, and she is forced to decide what all will she do to survive and where does her true loyalty lie.
We also have multiple interesting side characters who don’t have too much page time but nevertheless leave impressions. Omar is very easy to loathe right from his first appearance and my hatred for him only increased as the story went, but the author even managed to make his arc more than just a one dimensional villain. We also meet a few of his side kicks who are equally cruel and horrible. And then there are the bookish and sweet Hakim, and the suave and charming Ahmed who were there for just a few pages but are unforgettable.
Huh !!! I’ve written too much, haven’t I?? But what to do, I loved this debut and I couldn’t shut up. It has everything I could ask for in an epic fantasy – inspired by some of my favorite childhood stories, gorgeous world building that feels so alive, an engaging plot full of quests and dangers, characters who you love immediately, and the power of storytelling as an art and as a tool woven through the whole narrative in an intricate manner. Definitely a contender for being my top favorite of the year and I can only hope the wait for the sequel isn’t too long and excruciating.
PS: Thank you to Orbit Books and Netgalley for providing me with this advance copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.