This is a helluva novel to wake up to the new year with. The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbai is an absolutely gripping fantasy novel set in an alternate Egypt with a feminist agenda front and centre. Nehal and Giorgina are in different social classes but both feel the oppressive weight of a society where a woman does not have the vote, where she is the possession of her father and can be sold into marriage. Add in the magic for this world where elements can be controlled by weavers. Water, earth, air and fire can all be controlled by adepts with talented weaver specialising further. Prior to the novel starting a weaver who was a woman was able to control all four elements and was so powerful that she managed to destroy a chunk of their country and their neighbouring one too. All of this fuels suspicion of weavers in general and women with these abilities doubly so.
Nehal is privileged, spoiled and righteously furious when her marriage is arranged to Nico without her consent. She is a water weaver and has no interest in marriage, what she wants to do is to attend the weaving academy in order to hone her talents. But when faced with her parents decision, one that is financially motivated by her father’s gambling debts she is left with no choice but to acquiesce to their decision.
Giorgina is from a lower class family, she works in a bookshop to support them. She is an earthweaver but is ashamed of her abilities and has no idea how to control them. She uses her job as a way to afford herself a modicum of freedom and she is part of the Daughter’s of Izdihar a group headed by the charasmatic air weaver Malak Mahdou who are campaigning for sufferage and who run charity drives for women in need, be they for healthcare, food and other necessities. Giorgina and Nico are in love and hope to marry but Nico’s father has other plans and when the wedding to Nehal takes place Giorgina is left bereft.
This novel could easily have become a love triangle and it would have been readable and exciting at that level. But it is far much more than that. Nehal and Giorgina are both opposites in many ways, but are both beholden to the society that constrains them and Hadeer Elsbai explores in depth what that means to both of them. All of the characters are rounded and fully developed with flaws that are on display and as a reader you route for both of them in spite of their flaws, indeed because of them. They are both drawn to the Daughters for different reasons, but both stay to fight for their rights as women.
The novel is packed with action and set pieces which are jaw dropping, reveals that are gut wrenching and no punches are pulled. Characters live with their emotions and process them fuelling their decisions and pulling on the reader’s emotions.
My one criticism is that as the novel is winding up there is so much more story to tell and we are left with somewhat of a cliffhanger. But that does mean I will be in the queue for the sequel because I need to know how this story ends.
The Daughters of Izdihar is published today by Orbit books in the UK.