Genres: High Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Cast of colour, hijra/trans woman MC, multiple hijra secondary characters
Published on: 13th April 2021
The battle has been won, but the war is just beginning.
Although at long last Razia Khan has found peace with herself and love with her prince, Arjun, her trials are far from over. In order to save her prince and his city from certain destruction, Razia made a deal with the devil--her father, the Sultan of Nizam. Now the bill has come due.
Razia must secure the province of Zindh, a land surrounded by enemies, and loyal to a rebel queen who has survived her father's purge. But when her old tormentor Prince Karim invades her new home and forces her into a marriage alliance, Razia finds herself trapped in the women's quarters of a foreign palace, with her beloved Prince Arjun exiled from her side.
Now, in order to free herself, and her province, from Karim's clutches, she must call upon all of her training as a royal princess, a cunning courtesan, and a daring thief to summon new allies and old friends for a battle that will decide her fate, and the fate of an empire.
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~skirts are scarier than swords (no joke)
~ridiculously beautiful jewelry everywhere
~real men love strong, smart women
~fight for your family
~do what it takes to survive
~Don’t ever think you can outsmart a princess
:A note – Razia is a hijra, which is a nonbinary gender identity from South Asia. It is often understood by Westerners as the equivalent of being a trans woman, but not all hijra agree with that. For the purposes of this review, Razia is referred to as a woman or a hijra, as that is how she refers to herself in the books.:
Gifting Fire is the sequel to last year’s Stealing Thunder, and if you haven’t read that, stop now and hit the back button. And go read Stealing Thunder, because it’s awesome.
Then come back, because Gifting Fire is even better.
The book starts where Stealing Thunder ended; Razia is now subahdar (provincial governor) of the province of Zindh as part of her father’s empire. But the situation is made very clear very quickly: Zindh is such a mess after the events of the previous book, and with the various factions taking advantage of those events, that Razia is all but guaranteed to lose control of the province – if she can even get it under control to begin with. Making her subahdar is a kind of back-handed compliment from her father; when asked why on earth he’s doing it, he says
“It occurred to me then,” my father continued, “that if anyone in Daryastan could save Zindh, it would be the girl who had pulled herself out of the gutter to become a princess.”
He expects her to fail. But…
“I don’t think you’re clever enough to save Zindh, but I’d have to be a fool to underestimate a courtesan who somehow orchestrated the worst defeat Nizam has suffered in my twenty-seven-year reign.”
It’s heady praise, especially when Razia has never had anything but condemnation from her father.
It’s somehow worse, then, when he undercuts it all by placing Sikander – her childhood bodyguard, which translated to the one who beat her ‘for your own good’ for most of her childhood – in charge of the soldiers he leaves behind with her. It’s almost darkly ironic: even knowing that she’s brilliant, he can’t bring himself to give her a real chance. Even now, he has to undermine her. It doesn’t matter how smart Razia is with strategy and tactics if her own soldiers won’t follow her orders.
It’s definitely worse when her father returns almost immediately after leaving, declaring that Razia is to marry Karim – the prince who raped her as a child and is still every bit as disgusting and awful as he was then.
I think it’s fair to describe Stealing Thunder as Razia’s rise; she starts the book a lowly courtesan, but through a fair bit of luck and a lot of skill and smarts, by the time the book ends, she is something close to the princess she always wanted to be. Gifting Fire, then, is at least partly her realisation that being a princess…at least, the kind of princess the world wants her to be…is kind of awful. Princesses have almost no autonomy, and are mostly moved around as playing pieces by their male family members. They belong to their husbands very much like property, and have no real recourse if those husbands abuse them. That’s not to say that royal women don’t have power, because they do, but it’s generally a quiet kind that depends on either the permissiveness or blindness of the men around them.
So it’s many, many kinds of painful to see the situation Razia is put in, simply because anyone with functioning empathy should be horrified by the idea of it and bitterly sympathetic towards the reality of her helplessness. But there’s something extra-awful, extra-cruel, in revealing that the reality of Razia’s dream is actually a nightmare.
“…you told me that if I’d just treated you like a woman, you never would have shamed me, you would have been the perfect little princess. …And now, I have recognised you as a princess, and you are going to shame me again by refusing to act the part? Maybe the problem wasn’t how you were born. Maybe the problem is you.”
You cannot even imagine how badly I want this bastard to die!
…But at the same time, he has a point. That’s what makes it so extra-horrible. By marrying Karim, Razia will prevent a war and seal a powerful alliance for her father, and that is what princesses do. Far too many women throughout history have been in Razia’s position, or worse ones. Razia could easily have ended up in this or a very similar situation if she’d been born a cis woman, and it makes me want to cry. It’s so unfair. It’s unfair because it’s true. This is how a real princess gets treated.
Although no, asshole, the problem isn’t Razia. The problem is your fucked-up patriarchy and gender-roles, thanks very much.
There’s a lot of things that make Gifting Fire special, but for me, one of them was the intelligence of Razia’s enemies. It’s not very often that I read a story where the bad guys are able to throw more than one, maybe two spanners into the heroine’s plans, and Stealing Thunder has already established Razia as an incredibly intelligent woman with a special talent for politics and strategy. I was expecting her to find a way out of the problem, a way out of marrying Karim – but she couldn’t. Her counter-move – offering her father a different strategy – was denied. She’s out-outmaneuvered and there’s nothing she can do about it, at least not in that moment. And although I won’t go into details to avoid spoilers…this is not the only time it happens. Razia – and her allies – make their plans, but Boyden has written villains and semi-villains who are smart. Because I love Razia and her chosen family, I wanted to wave a magic wand and make it all better, or at least make the villains into bumbling idiots she could run rings around – but there’s no denying that smart villains make for a much more intense reading experience. I was on the edge of my seat from the fifth chapter to the last page, and I could not put the book down, because I was terrified that at any moment Razia’s brilliance was going to be parried and it was all going to fall apart.
Even after thinking hard, I can only think of a few stories where the heroes are outsmarted this many times by the villains. Which is not to say that Razia isn’t smart, because she is – and if she had the tools that would be her right in a better world, no one would have a chance against her. But her situation is desperate; she has almost no resources, and the few allies she has have little power to help. And her prison-wardens are smart.
I know I keep repeating that. But it really is unusual, and it really does raise the stakes so much higher than I was expecting them to be. Gifting Fire made me anxious and flat-out scared for Razia and her loved ones, and most books don’t do that to me. Most books, you know it’s all going to end well, so you never need to be really scared. The heroes are never in any real danger, even if the author does their best to make you think they are. I mean, how often do even secondary characters die, in most books? Not often at all. And when was the last time you saw a main character die, or end the book fully defeated? Outside of the Grimdark genre?
Boyden had me scared. And I take my hat off to her for that. I’m hugely impressed by how the narrative feels like a swordfight; move and counter-move and disaster only ever one misstep away. Every time I thought things were safe, they weren’t. Every time I thought I could relax, there’d been a twist, a carpet ripped out from under me, the villains coming up with something new and awful and too.fucking.clever.
What I’m saying is: make sure you have a stress ball handy when you start reading, okay?
None of this detracts from the book’s fundamental beauty. Boyden’s prose is descriptive and lush, unstinting in its glory, a treasure chest of jewels and colours. And let’s be real here: one of the reasons I fell into Fantasy was for the intricate, lovingly-described clothes and jewelry, and Gifting Fire has some of the most gorgeous, over-the-top ornate clothes and jewelry I’ve seen in ages. Sure, it’s shallow of me, but good luck getting me not to highlight every passage featuring a new necklace or dupatta. In that, Gifting Fire hearkens back to baby!Sia’s ideas of what Fantasy is supposed to be: glittering and gilded even when things get dark. I don’t know how to put it into words properly: this duology has unashamedly revelled in its (and Razia’s, and my!) enjoyment of all things beautiful from day one, and there’s something…something joyful about it. Celebratory. It feels as if Boyden enjoys writing about beautiful things as much as I enjoy reading about them.
And I guess you could analyse this with regards Razia’s femininity, with her being allowed, finally, to embrace all things feminine as she couldn’t as a child. There’s something to the idea that so many trans women – and, I’m sure, hijra – are at best denied feminine things by those who refuse to acknowledge their true gender, and at worst punished for wanting them, at some point in their lives. So there’s something…defiant, about all the jewels and glitter. Something very powerful. It’s armour in so many ways, it’s proof that they are who they say they are, it’s a celebration of their true selves…and it’s a fuck-you to everyone who once said they weren’t allowed to be feminine.
(Which is not, of course, to say that all trans women are hyper feminine or into ‘girly’ things; and I don’t know much about hijra, but there are probably hijra, too, who don’t want to be fairytale princesses. But I don’t think that takes away from the quiet, powerful message Boyden is sending with all these gems and silks.)
There’s probably also something to the fact that all the zahaks we meet are female. I don’t remember if it was mentioned in the previous book – maybe female zahaks are larger or stronger than male ones – but I don’t think it’s an accident that these beautiful, powerful creatures – animals whose allegiance shifts the power dynamics of empires – are all female. Emperors, kings, princes: they all ride female zahaks, and those zahaks are, at their core, the foundation of every prince’s power.
Oh, gods, I want to write a whole essay about the zahaks! I love them so much, and the amount of thought and detail Boyden has put into their creation, their size, abilities…it makes me want to swoon. I can only assume that she studied a lot of birds in order to figure out how the different breeds of zahaks would work, would fly, because it’s simply amazing. This breed is bigger, but can’t fly as quickly as some others; that breed has a wing-shape that allows for more maneuverability in the air… They feel so much like real creatures, so naturally and perfectly woven into the world Boyden has crafted that, even with their incredible abilities, it’s hard to remember that they’re not real. The way they influence politics, fashion, war…the way they affect and alter every aspect of this world…
And WE FINALLY HAVE A PICTURE OF A ZAHAK! I mean, have you seen that cover?!
I’m so happy I finally know how to picture them properly! And can we have some major applause for the cover artist, Tommy Arnold, please?!
I could keep going on about this book for weeks, but what I most want to say is this: Stealing Thunder was Razia’s rise from courtesan to princess. Gifting Fire, then, is her becoming a princess, a true princess – or maybe making it clear that she always was one. Razia is a brilliantly intelligent woman, but it’s more than that; she would not be as great as she is, and certainly wouldn’t be able to save herself or her people, if she wasn’t who she is. If she was not compassionate, was not kind, did not greet others with respect, did not honour her allies and duties and commitments – she wouldn’t survive. She is the ideal princess, forging unbreakable alliances not through marriage, but through love and friendship and mutual respect, and in weaving so many threads together she is so much more powerful than she ever could be alone. The theme of Found Family is intrinsic to the concept of hijra and well-established in Stealing Thunder, and Razia’s only grows – so unspeakably beautifully – through this second book. So many times, it’s that sisterhood that saves her, those friendships, those alliances, those loves. And it’s with them – with all those people beside her, behind her – that she changes the entire shape of the world.
Don’t get me wrong: Razia is brilliant, beyond brilliant. She’s strong in ways heroes never have to be, ruthless when necessary, as fierce as her zahak Sultana. Breathtakingly brave.
It’s just that her heart is as brilliant as her mind. And that only makes me adore her more.
(But Sultana remains my favourite!)
Gifting Fire is out today. And you will be missing out on a masterpiece if you don’t buy it immediately.