I might be giving this book 4 stars on the overall roundup but I think it’s probably more of a 3.75 star read, and not just because it took me two months to finish it since that is a mistake on my part, not the book’s. But ever since I read We Hunt the Flame last near, I knew that there was something special about Hafsah Faizal as a writer. I could feel in her words that she had things to say and ideas to explore and has the potential to flourish into an author to watch. Was the book perfect? No, but that simply because it’s hard to achieve such a status with me. But this is a duology I very much enjoyed and, honestly, I think the second book is better than its predecessor and that’s all you can ask for, really.
I didn’t get to write a proper review for the first book, so I didn’t really express how I felt about the writing and characters and structure. Though I forgot majority of the first book’s plot, thanks to my incredible lack of memory, but I feel like Faizal managed to pepper in the recaps in a way that both felt subtle enough to ease the continuation for someone reading both books back to back and also enough to jog the memory of someone like me. And to me, that’s a pretty good reflection of how good of a writer Faizal is. If you can get me to remember the plot of your book that I read a year ago without having to search and reread, then you’ve done a good job. But more than that, I’m simply in love with Faizal’s prose and find it to be simplistic yet effective, not having to rely on melodrama to get a point across. It’s not a prose that makes it hard to read, or hard to understand for that matter, and while others might not be a fan I know that it’s a prose that works for me. I also think it’s a prose that reflects the characters well, whether it’s Zafira or Nasir or Altair, and of course the third person narrative is perfection. I will say that, though I love the prose, there were times where I felt it got ahead of itself in describing mundane action or settings and I had a hard time placing where people were or how they were moving, only to find my answer in the very next sentence or paragraph. It’s an interesting way to write, and could also be a Me problem, but that is my slight complaint about the prose.
Another thing I like about this duology is how it’s a very good balance between plot and characters and not just one or the other. I found the plot to be better paced than this one, jumping from Zafira and Nasir’s plot to restore the hearts throughout Arawiya to Altair’s capture with The Lion, but how it moved beyond just that. There was a lot of unpredictability as well as unreliableness to the plot, never knowing where it was going to go or what would ultimately happen, and I really enjoyed that. I liked that I couldn’t predict a lot of what would happen in this book, albeit there were some things near the end that I could figure out, but for the most part I was kept on my toes. I feel like Faizal had set up the book to somewhat fall into the predictable YA fantasy realm but managed to break out of that in the end. But most of all I liked how it didn’t just end on a perfect note, all wrapped up in a bow. I liked how it mentioned how even after all the triumph and defeat, there’s still a lot of work to be done and recovery to undergo, and how we effectively saw the steps into that recovery. And that allowed us more insight on the characters as well, seeing how they would end up rather than assuming this would happen or they would take a different route. I already felt like this duology’s plot stood out on its own but the way Faizal concluded everything was unique enough to solidify it’s stand out status and I can’t complain about anything.
As I said, the characters were just as balanced as the plot and I really enjoyed the journeys and development the characters went through in this book. I liked seeing how Zafira coped with her bond with the Jawarat, how she dealt with that darkness it constantly influenced in her, how Nasir dealt with losing Altair and breaking free of the years of abuse The Lion inflicted on him, how both of them really found their place and their person. And I enjoyed how Altair could finally claim himself and not just be someone hidden in the shadows, but someone people want and need. I also found the exploration of The Lion’s villain character to be interesting, how he had only wanted to belong and to be a well of knowledge, but knew the only way to achieve that acceptance and that knowledge was through fear and havoc. I felt like there were a lot of layers to the characters, right down to the villain, and it’s an enjoyable cast to read about. But mostly, I loved the importance of this found family finding each other and how they’d do anything to stay together, how that was constantly emphasized in the story and how you can find your place and home with a person or people, rather than a place. Faizal was outstanding at creating amazing and memorable dynamics and it’s truly impossible not to get swept up in these characters.
I probably should complain that Zafira and Nasir fell in love in a matter of two months but I’m not going to because their relationship is truly everything. The way Nasir was able to slowly open himself up to Zafira, to find the words he never thought he was allowed to say, to express how much he cares about her with the smallest of actions or the most carefully constructed sentence is like a drug I don’t want to give up. I feel like Faizal took a lot of time to really flush out their dynamic in this book, whereas it felt a little to flighty in the first one, and managed to have their feelings and need for one another progress in a steady way. Mostly, I love how their feelings for one another were literally written, how Nasir’s feelings for her was a word that hadn’t been invented yet or how Zafira felt like she could finally exhale with him in her life. Though their relationship was incredibly important to the characters, it came second to the plot and that’s something I enjoyed the most. It also provided a lot of angst and build up for the pairing, which I love, and really adds to the duology as a whole rather than take away from it. And it’s great.
I think for a debut duology, this is one of the strongest I’ve read in a while. I think the story and plot were both exciting and unpredictable, the writing and prose were strong and progressed along the way, and the characters were so wonderful and made the story what it is. Like I said, it’s not a perfect duology, but it’s one of those underrated gems that flies under the radar until someone points you in its direction. If you’re a fan of YA, I highly recommend this jewel of a duology. It might seem like a big book to get through, but it’s worth it in the end.
The battle on Sharr is over. The dark forest has fallen. Altair may be captive, but Zafira, Nasir, and Kifah are bound for Sultan’s Keep, determined to finish the plan he set in motion: restoring the hearts of the Sisters of Old to the minarets of each caliphate, and finally returning magic to all of Arawiya. But they are low on resources and allies alike, and the kingdom teems with fear of the Lion of the Night’s return.
As the zumra plots to overthrow the kingdom’s darkest threat, Nasir fights to command the magic in his blood. He must learn to hone his power into a weapon, to wield not only against the Lion but against his father, trapped under the Lion’s control. Zafira battles a very different darkness festering in her through her bond with the Jawarat—a darkness that hums with voices, pushing her to the brink of her sanity and to the edge of a chaos she dare not unleash. In spite of the darkness enclosing ever faster, Nasir and Zafira find themselves falling into a love they can’t stand to lose…but time is running out to achieve their ends, and if order is to be restored, drastic sacrifices will have to be made.
Lush and striking, hopeful and devastating, We Free the Stars is the masterful conclusion to the Sands of Arawiya duology by New York Times–bestselling author Hafsah Faizal.