Its a lovely day on NJB, because I not only get to squee about an amazing diverse book, but its also one that hits me close to home and brings with it something I’ve been looking for since I started reading books as a child.
Not just satisfaction, but also a deep sense of being known, of not being alien to myself and others and thousands of tiny details that make me feel utterly transported and yet comfortable.
I’m talking about ‘The Candle and the Flame’, this incandescent debut book by Nafiza Azad.
I won’t lie, I literally hoarded this book for a rainy day because I could tell it was going to be so good. I savored it and stretched it out and refused to be interrupted while reading it. I want to buy a paperback copy of it just so I can put it in my spice cabinet at home and smell all the things that remind me of home and love and comfort while I read it.
I literally don’t know how to tell you all the ways I felt about this book, but I’m going to try.
First off though, content and trigger warnings. This is a little heavier than some of what I usually review. Its a YA novel, focusing on the city of Noor, which has a fair amount of complex political interactions happening, as well as a history of bloodshed. Controlling abusive relationships, in the past and present, along with child neglect, family estrangment, a massive loss of life prior to the beginning of the book, blood spatter and death. I wouldn’t describe it as gory however, but I could see the family estrangment and abusive relationships being a trigger for some. YMMV.
So this book. This book. This fabulous book. Its a mystery and a romance with some action and it fits so perfectly together. Its a soft, careful romance, fit for 90’s Bollywood with passionate kissing and hugging and not much else on the physicality spectrum. But damn, you don’t feel like you’re missing out. The love between the two main characters is so soft, careful and working on explicit consent. I love it so and I wish I’d had it as a teenager so I could have learned about healthy relationships and what they look like.
The other relationships in this story are also on a range, from healthy to unhealthy and provide a vast variety of looks, power differentials and ways of interacting. There’s a reason I’m going to recommend this to my young cousins. .
But here’s the thing I’m going to gush about until the cows come home. The details…the tiny, culturally specific details that made me feel as though I’d come home and my grandmother was waiting for me with a cup of chai and homemade mutthi. There’s no sense of this being a spectacle for the dominant culture or of requiring explanation.
Everything is presented as what it is and the glossary is in the back if you need it. But for me, it was the first time ever I’d cracked open a work of fiction and felt as though I could be transported to a place that felt simultaneously new and old. It didn’t hurt that the Maharani in this book has the same name as my mother, an experience I’ve never had until this book. To see names I know and cherish, foods I grew up with, experiences and moments I’d lived that previously had been absent from fiction I read….I don’t know how to describe this to you.
There are no words for the depth of feeling it created in me. Suffice to say, books like this are why I started Not Just a Buzzword. Because I knew that books like this were possible and real. I wanted to know them, love them, find them and experience them. I wanted to feel them in the depths of my soul and in every sense of my body. The Candle and the Flame delivers this, along with a story that twists and turns and keeps the reader engaged.
I slowly devoured this book like the bikaner bhujia that used to come in suitcases from India and was rationed out, knowing there was no way to get more once it was gone. I highlighted words in Hindi and Urdu, just because it made me feel so much to see them in print, not as translations, but just existing. There was no apologizing, no explanation but just words in their context. There was an assumption of being understood and it filled my soul with peace.
I can’t describe this book to you. I can’t recommend it enough. Read it, cherish it. You may not feel how I did when you do, because for me, it was indescribable. But its an incredibly worthy addition to YA fiction and it embodies a richness of setting and a centering of diverse narrative that I want to see in every new work I read.
Nafiza is a true gem, in creating a world that felt like home but also was new and open. Her Djinn are fantastic and complex, with lots of possibility for future books. Her characters have complex relationships, internally and externally and grow and change as the story progresses. One of the secondary characters I liked the least became the one I admired the most and it felt utterly natural. The politics are fascinating and the characterizations are so real.
Giving it 5 stars feels somehow like a pittance, because I can’t even tell you what this book meant to me. So you’ll just have to read it and know that it meant the world to me. Its going on a shelf with G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, and I hope to fill that shelf with many more books like it.
Until next time,
Not Just a Buzzword
*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review and I don’t think they were honestly expecting a love letter in return, but hey that’s not my problem.