The Candle and the Flame is unlike every other YA fantasy novel I’ve read, and I love it for that.
It’s a slowly-unfolding tale about politics, family and love set in Noor, a city on the Silk Road, and it’s the kind of really detailed, atmospheric fantasy I can’t get enough of.
I struggled with it at first. I often do, with slow-paced novels, but what made this one particularly hard to get into was the omniscient narration in third person present, very jarring at first, but which I started to see as beautiful once I got used to it. I don’t have any problems with it, as it’s a choice that clearly made sense for the story, and I struggled with it because of habits, and not because of bad execution.
And the writing really is beautiful. Food descriptions are my weakness, and this book has so many of them. I appreciated the level of detail the author wove into the story – it’s never just a tree, it’s a gulmohar (the beautiful Delonis regia) and it’s never just a dress or jewels, Nafiza Azad will tell you which kind of dress, which kinds of jewels. Which also means that, depending on how familiar the cultures represented are to you, this book might require a lot of googling. And to say that I don’t mind that is an understatement, I actually love it.
The city of Noor is now one of my favorite YA fantasy setting. It reminded me a bit of the Cairo of P. Djèlí Clark’s The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – not because Noor and that alternate version of Cairo are similar (they’re really not), but because both these fantasy books portray multi-cultural cities with humans of different cultures and faiths coexisting, and also coexisting with Djinn. It really stands out how unrealistically and depressingly homogeneous the average fantasy city is. Also, this means that you get descriptions of Turkish food and Korean food and so many dishes from the Indian subcontinent.
(Also, there’s a mention of a very minor character being queer and I appreciate books that acknowledge explicitly that queer characters exist in their world. And I’m not completely sure it’s canon but Sunaina is totally not straight as far as I’m concerned)
But enough about the setting, let’s talk about the story and characters. When the author said that this book is about women being women in the most fantastic ways possible, I didn’t really know what she meant, but now I can say that I totally agree. There are so many female characters in this book, all of them very different from each other, some of them morally gray to some degree, and the way this book sidestepped completely some misogynistic stereotypes – how easy it would have been to make the rajkumari just a spoiled, entitled princess who hated the protagonist, and how many books have I read that do exactly that – without having all relationships between women be smooth and friendly is one of the things I liked the most. I loved reading about Fatima Ghazala and Sunaina’s relationship as adopted sisters who went through a lot together, because it’s strained and developed and all but stagnant during the story. I also loved reading about the Alif sisters’ banter.
I really liked Fatima Ghazala, especially because she was allowed to be distant and sometimes cold without being villainized for it. Also, ownvoices Muslim main character in fantasy!
I liked her romance with Zulfikar, even though I didn’t feel strongly about it – they’re not… my type? I don’t know if that makes sense, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the romance – and I really appreciated the conversations they had about forgiveness, grieving and what makes a monster.
The political intrigue in this book was predictable, but I also feel like it was supposed to be – this isn’t the kind of book that wants or needs to surprise you with plot twists – so I didn’t mind that too much.
My rating: ★★★★