Shannon (S.A.) Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy is one of the best fantasy series to hit shelves in the past decade, a vividly imagined historical fantasy about the long and bloody history of conflict between the human world and that of the djinn. (If you haven’t read this series, yet, take this as a suggestion to go correct that error immediately.) It’s the sort of series that’s so good that it makes its author an automatic must-read forever afterward.
Chakraborty’s 2022 release, A River of Silver was an anthology collection of tales, cut scenes, and character snippets from the world of her Daevabad series, but 2023 will see the author kick off a new fantasy trilogy with The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi, a swashbuckling story of pirates, sorcerers, ancient mysteries, forbidden artifacts, and a fierce, middle-aged mother who will stop at nothing to find a missing girl and protect her own daughter in the process.
Boasting a fast-paced feel and a more humorous lighthearted tone than her previous books, The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi is a delight from its very first pages, full of colorful, slightly corrupt characters and the promise of an adventure for the ages.
Here’s how the publisher describes the story.
Amina al-Sirafi should be content. After a storied and scandalous career as one of the Indian Ocean’s most notorious pirates, she’s survived backstabbing rogues, vengeful merchant princes, several husbands, and one actual demon to retire peacefully with her family to a life of piety, motherhood, and absolutely nothing that hints of the supernatural.
But when she’s tracked down by the obscenely wealthy mother of a former crewman, she’s offered a job no bandit could refuse: retrieve her comrade’s kidnapped daughter for a kingly sum. The chance to have one last adventure with her crew, do right by an old friend, and win a fortune that will secure her family’s future forever? It seems like such an obvious choice that it must be God’s will.
Yet the deeper Amina dives, the more it becomes alarmingly clear there’s more to this job, and the girl’s disappearance, than she was led to believe. For there’s always risk in wanting to become a legend, to seize one last chance at glory, to savor just a bit more power…and the price might be your very soul.
A rollicking ride, this title will not only delight fans of Chakraborty’s previous work but should bring plenty of new fans to her door with its charming, vaguely criminal cast of characters, entertaining dialogue, and action-packed plot.
Though The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi won’t hit shelves until February 28, we’re happy to be able to bring you an excerpt from the book’s fourth chapter right now, which features the famous Amina tracking down an old (and possibly still dangerous) crewmate to ask for a favor.
I stood before a skinny shop in a forgotten town between Salalah and Aden, sweat stinging my eyes. The sun was high overhead, that most sweltering point of the day when anyone with sense is resting in the coolest spot of shade they can find. The shop was purposely innocuous, surrounded by foul-smelling tanneries, dye shops, and barbers who must have specialized in bloodletting and flesh-branding judging by the stench. Greasy mats of tightly braided reeds covered the shop’s windows, and the battered door was devoid of any markings that might have indicated the building’s purpose.
“We are friends,” I reminded myself under my breath, working up enough courage to approach the door. “And friends do not murder each other without warning.” With a whispered prayer, I knocked on the door.
It swung inward on a pair of rusty hinges, revealing a yawning black hole.
“Hello?” I called out. “Is anyone here?”
There was no response. My heart racing, I stepped inside. The room was exceedingly small and bare, the only furniture a low wooden bench. Just beside the bench was another doorway. A patterned red curtain had been drawn across it and a ceramic plate inscribed with religious verses hung above.
I jumped and spun around with a curse. A small woman now stood between the outer door and myself, having appeared seemingly out of thin air. Dressed in an ash-covered blue tunic rolled to her elbows, she was so short that she barely rose to my chest, the dim light casting a greenish hue across her golden brown skin and making her face look delicate.
“Dalila!” I greeted brightly. “Well . . . look who has gotten more beautiful with retirement!” This was a lie. Dalila has always possessed a kind of alarming beauty, but right now her dark chestnut hair was so snarled it resembled a bird’s nest, one of her eyebrows appeared to have been recently singed off, and she was squinting, giving her expression a more manic edge than usual.
“Amina al-Sirafi.” Without warning, Dalila lunged forward to wrap me in a tight hug. “My friend, you have finally come to visit!” She grabbed my face, her nails digging into the back of my skull as she kissed my cheeks. “My goodness, I was beginning to fear you’d forgotten all about me! It was beginning to hurt my feelings!”
Fear galloped through me. I glanced down to see if the linen cap cover- ing her head was her infamous one—the one whose ribbons are festooned with poison tablets and glass vials of death fashioned to look like pretty baubles.
I couldn’t tell. Damn. “No. No, of course not.” I replied, forcing a laugh. “How could I forget my closest friend?”
Tinbu is your closest friend. He got your ship.”
“Tinbu did not get my ship. He sails under my leave. Because he is a sailor and not someone who refused to learn anything about boats.”
Dalila straightened up, bringing all her petite form up to bear. “I could have learned.”
I tried to change the subject. “So your trade now . . .” I glanced around the bare interior. “It is what exactly?”
She smiled for the first time, a devilish gleam in the dark. Closer now, I could see silver streaks in her hair and a few fine lines tracing out from her eyes and her lips. “Pharmaceuticals.”
Pharmaceuticals. I choked. “I did not think you had any . . . training in that.”
“Oh, I don’t. But it is largely the same principle as poisoning, no? Just in reverse.” Dalila winked. “The ladies here love me. So many terrible husbands dying in their sleep. It must be something in the water.”
God preserve me. “I am, ah, happy you are finding your place in the world.”
“One has little choice when they have been abandoned by those they considered their closest comrades.”
“I literally paid you off. Generously.”
Dalila took my arm, and I tried not to tense. “Generosity is a matter of opinion, my dear nakhudha. Come, I will show my work.”
Somehow she made that sound not quite like a threat, and we swept through the curtained entrance into a room four times bigger than the false entry that made immediately clear—no matter her griping—that Dalila had invested her final pay-off well. Repurposed shelves and sturdy tables were covered in stoneware dishes and clay jars. Some were filled with the herbs, oils, resins, and such one would find in a proper apothecary, but there were also stranger, more lethal ingredients hinting at her true profession: blacksmith’s filings and powdered glass, pickled nightshade berries and dried oleander flowers. The strong stench of chemicals rose from a corner of the room dedicated to simmering liquid-filled metal pots set over a trio of braziers.
Taking great care not to touch anything and casting a wary eye at a complicated apparatus with glass bulbs, copper tubes, and what looked like blood splashed in its interior, I let out an impressed whistle. “Nice workshop. Certainly appears you’ve kept yourself busy.”
“The quiet life of being ignored by my companions has otherwise done me well and staying in one place lets me run experiments longer.” Dalila gave an affectionate tap to a suspended burlap sack dripping purple ichor into a glass flask. “I have been doing some truly astonishing new things with knockout gas.”
“You’re going to permanently knock yourself out one day with one of these experiments if you’re not careful.” There seemed distressingly poor ventilation in her cramped workplace.
“What is a little risk compared to the possibility of advancing the poi- son arts?” Dalila raised her singed eyebrow. “You know what my sheikh says.”
“‘He who dares does while he who fears fails,’” I said, repeating the mantra of the Banu Sasan.
“Not to insult your guild’s beliefs, but perhaps we could talk somewhere away from knockout gases?”
With a disappointed roll of her eyes, Dalila led me to a small courtyard boxed in by the looming, windowless walls of the surrounding buildings. Save the deadly experiments, her personal possessions were few. A low rope bed covered in a patchwork quilt stood in one corner, and an icon of Mariam and baby Isa, peace be upon them both, was set reverently in a niche in the bricks nearby. Upon a single trunk was her staff, a slender length of polished hardwood I’d seen crack more than one man’s skull.
It was a far cry from my warm, bustling home filled with family and souvenirs, and upon taking it all in, I did feel a measure of guilt. Or perhaps Dalila had guided me to such guilt. Like any youngster, I grew up on tales of the Banu Sasan. Stories of thieves who break into homes by digging tunnels under the foundation and murderers who can cut a man’s neck so cleanly his head won’t topple off. Some people say the Banu Sasan are the criminally talented descendants of Persian kings my people chased into the mountains centuries ago, others claim they’re just conmen with clever tricks that make for easily exaggerated gossip. Either way, they inspire wonderful stories, this brotherhood of terrifying brigands and scoundrels, their tales so audacious they seem impossible to believe.
Then Dalila joined my crew. Or rather she blackmailed my crew into spiriting her out of Basrah by stowing away in the cargo hold, poisoning my navigator, and withholding the antidote until we had cleared the Persian Gulf. It was a complicated recruitment process. But becoming the boon companion of an actual devotee of this supposed Sheikh Sasan has not enlightened me as to the mysteries of the Banu Sasan, or Dalila her- self, in the slightest. She is a Christian, a proud one who makes a quiet point of looking out for her people when she can, but I could tell you nothing more than that. We once had a particularly obnoxious linguistics scholar turned hostage who tried to wheedle more information out of her, claiming he could tell from her accent and rituals where her people were from. After smugly declaring her an Assyrian from Mosul, Dalila smiled and prayed Christian invocations in a dozen different languages, changing her inflection, accent, and gestures for each, and we all stopped bothering her about her origins.
“Sit, sit.” Dalila waved me toward her bed and then busied herself preparing two glass cups, steeping and straining dried red dates with some sort of chopped root and shards of amber jaggery.
She handed me one of the cups. “My newest creation. Like nothing you will ever drink again.” She sat down on the other side of the rope bed, and it was as though a spirit had alighted, her weight not shifting the cushions in the slightest.
I regarded the honey-colored concoction and her expectant expression. Surely she was only teasing me. Dalila had always had a disturbing sense of humor. And we were friends, right? At least the closest approximation of friendship I think Dalila capable of.
I sipped my drink. “It is good,” I said, trying to pretend I could taste anything while she watched me with her cat eyes.
“Not too bitter? You know, you still have a price on your head. A high one.”
I stared at her. If Dalila wanted to kill me, she didn’t need to poison my drink. That would be so obvious it was almost insulting to her abili- ties. She had already kissed my cheeks, touched the back of my neck and taken my arm in hers—more clever, more elegant delivery methods. More her style. We used to joke that of the three of us, I could kill you up close, Tinbu could kill you from another ship, and Dalila could kill you from a different city three days later.
I drank back the entire cup.
She cackled. “Oh, nakhudha, I have missed you.” “Enough to stop jesting about my death?”
Dalila shrugged, finally taking a sip from her own cup. “That depends. How’s my baby?”
“Marjana is flourishing, God be praised. She is lovely and kind and nothing like either of her parents.”
A hint of relief flickered in her face. Dalila was the only person I allowed to attend Marjana’s birth. The only person I trusted to do what was necessary if my worst fears came true. “I am glad to hear it.”
“What about you? Have you a life beyond trying to burn down your workshop in an experimental blaze?” I glanced around. “I see no evidence of a husband.”
Dalila laughed again. “Men are your weakness, Amina. Not mine.” “Come now,” I persisted. “Companionship has occasional benefits.” “You do not need men for companionship. And Kamran tried to stab you. Twice.”
“Yes, but in my defense, it was my first marriage, and he was distractingly pretty.”
“You threw the second one off the Marawati stark naked.”
“We were at port, it was warm, and he was an excellent swimmer. Besides, I upgraded to Samir after, and he was lovely. Even you liked him.”
“He was an extremely impressive cutpurse,” Dalila admitted. Then she gave me a pointed look.
“And the husband after Samir?”
I cleared my throat. “Never mind marriage. Still . . . being cooped up in here must get dull, no? You are perhaps desiring an adventure beyond alchemy and poisoning the worst of the neighborhood grooms?”
Dalila leaned against a cushion. “How abruptly you puncture the illu- sion this visit was prompted by friendship.”
“I apologize for my rudeness. Asif al-Hilli’s mother came to visit me.” The humor left her eyes.
“What? Does she—”
“No,” I said quickly. “It wasn’t about . . . about what happened to him.” I hesitated, my heart still a mess when it came to Asif. “He had a daughter, Dalila. A wife.”
“Ah.” Her lips thinned. “I guess they got left out of those stories about how terrible his family was.”
I grimaced. “That’s not fair. He was young.”
“He was a fool.” But her blunt words were tinged with grief. “A fool who made a deal anyone else would have seen was a trap.”
It was difficult not to flinch at that—Asif wasn’t the only fool. “He didn’t deserve what happened to him,” I said instead.
Dalila sighed, returning to the matter at hand. “So, Asif had a daugh- ter and wife he walked out on, and now his rich mother has tracked you down. Why?”
“You may have to steady yourself. She believes his daughter was kid- napped by some Frank prowling about Aden.”
Dalila went completely still. “A Frank? A Frank prowling about Aden?” I frowned. “Have you heard of such a man?”
“You might say that.” Dalila rose to her feet, heading for a trunk in the corner. “A man matching that exact description wrote to me last year.”
I gasped. “He wrote to you? How? I didn’t think anyone else even knew where you were.”
“You are bold to assume such a priority in my life. There are a few others who know how to contact me, but none I could imagine foolish enough to share that information.” Dalila unlocked the trunk and rifled through a messy stack of letters and broken scrolls before plucking one out.
“Yet this foreigner was able to get his note into my hands.”
“What did he want?”
“It is best heard directly from its insane source.” Dalila brought the letter to her face, squinted, and then held it farther out to read aloud. “‘To the Mistress of Poisons, I have heard great tales of your feats and accomplishments. I, too, am a Seeker of Truth and’ . . . well, here he mostly brags about himself for a paragraph, comparing his intellect to Aristotle and his fighting prowess to Samson—”
“Yes, he is quite humble. He continues: ‘I will pay most handsomely for your expertise in the manner of vapors and humoral sciences in both coin and knowledge. If you are interested in peering past the mysteries of the Veil to see the Unseen and quench thy thirst on the magic of the Hidden Realm, I would be delighted to guide you. I look forward to your response.”
“He sounds like a drunk witch.” I grimaced. “I don’t like it. You know how I feel about magic.”
Dalila waved off my concern. “These are the sort who see a card trick and believe it an act of the greatest sorcery. The Frank said he intended to visit Aden last spring and that if I desired a meeting, he had an agent by the name of Layth.”
“Salima said a local agent set up their meeting as well. And Aden in the spring would put him in the city when Dunya was kidnapped.” I quickly related the rest of Salima’s story.
Dalila looked skeptical. “Ransom?”
“None, which has been gnawing at me. Salima said there has been no further contact.”
“So she has no proof this man is involved?”
“That was my response as well. But the family apparently has quite the treasure trove of talismanic items. If Falco is the same man who sent you that ridiculous letter, I could certainly see him being interested in their stash.”
“Still, it is strikingly slim evidence to have lured you out of retirement.” Dalila gave me a knowing look. “What did she offer?”
“A hundred thousand dinars if we learn the girl’s location.” Despite the circumstances, it was impossible not to grin. “A million if we retrieve her. As well as any plunder we recover from the Frank.”
Dalila let out a soft breath: not even a daughter of the Banu Sasan could remain stone-faced at the prospect of such a sum. “Do you believe she has that kind of money?”
“She gave me ten thousand as a deposit. For ten thousand dinars, I am happy to go ask some questions in Aden and check on the Marawati. We shall see what we uncover and take it from there.”
“Oh, is it ‘we’ already? I do not recall agreeing.”
“I mean, if you fear your skills have deteriorated . . .”
“Amina, you nearly jumped out of your sandals when I appeared. Do not insult me out of pretense.” Dalila squinted at my face again. “Does it not seem a bit coincidental that this Frank has learned of two different members of your crew?”
“It is far too coincidental,” I agreed. “Which is even further motiva- tion. You should come with me to Aden and make sure we thoroughly investigate matters.”
Dalila rolled her eyes. But then she paused. “I used to wonder, you know, what would finally bring you back. Whenever a strange message showed up, whenever an unexpected shadow fell over my doorstep, I would think, ‘This is it. She has some new score, some new scheme.’” Dalila met my gaze, her face carefully expressionless. “But then one year turned into two. Five. A decade.”
I opened and closed my mouth, lost for words at the unexpected confession: Dalila and sentiment had always seemed enemies. “I didn’t think any of you wanted to see me again,” I said. “Not after how things ended.”
“That end wasn’t your fault, Amina. Maybe if you had bothered to write, I could have assured you of such and you would not have spent the past ten years as a hermit, ignoring the rest of us.” I flushed with shame, but before I could apologize, she changed the subject in her abrupt, enig- matic way. “Though I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised it would be the most dangerous of jobs that would tempt you back.”
Even more heat crept into my face. “Yes. Ah . . . that is actually why I came to you first,” I admitted, feeling extremely sheepish. “You know how I have a tendency to misjudge risk?”
She snorted. “You are an excellent judge of risk. Your problem is that you run toward it.”
“I can’t this time. I promised my mother and daughter that I’d come home safe. That I’d walk away if things got too dangerous.” I attempted some groveling. “Dalila, I have never met anyone with your skills. If there’s anyone who can help me keep that promise, it’s you.”
“I understand.” Something almost compassionate flickered in Dalila’s face. “You will give me a bonus from your cut.”
So much for affection. “See? This is why Tinbu got my ship.”
Dalila ignored my response, screwing up her eyes again as she studied her laboratory. “I will need to pack; I have some promising projects I’d like to bring along.”
“Wait.” Acting on my own suspicion, I walked across the courtyard. I raised a hand. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
I dropped my closed fist. “Not even close. Are you having problems with your eyesight?”
“Just when I read,” Dalila dismissed. “It is a small thing.”
“You were not reading just now!” I gasped. “You make poisons, Dalila.
Can you even see the labels on those vials you’ve been mixing up?”
“I can see well enough to notice your limp, Amina. Are you sure you can fight with such an impairment? It could be very dangerous were you to lose your balance at sea when no one was around to help you.”
“Are you threatening me already?”
Dalila gave me a wicked smile. “Of course not, nakhudha. Especially not when you’re worth a million dinars. Now help me pack. We both know your true love awaits in Aden.”
??Adapted from The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty. Copyright © 2023 by Shannon Chakraborty. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Voyager, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi hits shelves on February 28, but you can pre-order it now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.